No-guns-allowed signs stick to campus doors at the University of Kansas.
But that will change come July 1, 2017, when any student, visitor, faculty or staff member over the age of 21 will be able to walk onto the Lawrence campus, or any other Kansas public university, with a handgun tucked inside a pea coat, purse or backpack.
Great, some say. If someone comes with guns blazing onto our campus we can take him down. Bad idea, say others. Alcohol, college students and guns make for a dangerous concoction.
The topic of guns, and how schools will handle them on campus, is one of the hottest subjects at colleges around the country these days. Earlier this month the issue flared at KU when students and professors packed an auditorium for a discussion on concealed weapons.
In Missouri, state Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, introduced a bill that would permit concealed weapons on the state’s public college campuses, including University of Missouri System schools in Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis and Rolla. MU officials would not comment on how the pending legislation would impact campuses.
In the wake of mass shootings at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, a South Carolina church, Umpqua Community College in Oregon, and most recently San Bernardino, Calif., talk about citizens arming themselves has escalated. At the same time, gun-control groups plead louder for deeper background checks, and limits on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition.
At Liberty University, a conservative, evangelical-based college in Virginia, president Jerry Falwell Jr. recently lifted a ban on guns in university dormitories and urged his students to arm themselves and learn to shoot.
“It just blows my mind when I see the president of the United States say that the answer to circumstances like (the shooting in San Bernardino) is more gun control,” Falwell said during a campus speech. “If some of those people in that community center had had what I’ve got in my back pocket right now....” (According to media reports, his campus audience erupted in applause.)
The arguments are just as passionate on the other side.
“I want to be clear that I am not in favor of allowing concealed carry on university campuses,” KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said in a message to her campus earlier this month.
Retired U.S. Navy admiral William McRaven, the special operations commander who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and now is chancellor of the University of Texas System, is also opposed to college students carrying concealed handguns on public university campuses.
“The presence of concealed weapons will make a campus a less safe environment,” McRaven told USA Today in August.
It’s the law
Despite the ongoing debate, guns are coming to campuses across the country.
Kansas is one of nine states — the others being Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Mississippi and Wisconsin — that have provisions that allow campus-carry or will soon.
In 2011 anti-gun lobbyists were able to push back against guns on college campuses, and bills in about a dozen states either died or were delayed.
But in 2013, a year after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot to death 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the tide seemed to shift.
At least 19 states introduced legislation to allow concealed-carry on campus, and the next year at least 14 states introduced similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It was 2013 when Kansas state law made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into public buildings, including the more than 800 buildings on the six public campuses governed by the Kansas Board of Regents.
But schools haven’t had to worry so much about guns in classrooms and dorm rooms before now because the universities had a temporary, four-year exemption from the law. The exemption allowed the regents to prohibit guns of any kind in their campus buildings.
Earlier this year Kansas amended its gun law so that gun owners can carry a concealed weapon without permit training. That state liberty would also be true for Kansas’ public college campuses once the four-year exemption expires in 2017. The concealed-carry freedom on campus won’t apply to long guns such as rifles, though. Handguns only.
And since university hospitals don’t follow the regents’ rules on guns, KU hospital, for example, will have its own standards. The medical school will permit concealed weapons.
“Unless something changes in the next year or so, Kansas colleges will have guns on their campuses,” said Mike Williams, president of the KU University Senate, which led the recent campus session on guns.
“It is the law,” Williams said. “We cannot break the law, and the university is not in a position to change the law.”
Instead, campus groups are educating each other on what’s coming, and university leaders, with guidance from the Board of Regents, will make policy to manage the inevitable. Last week the regents approved a draft of a new guns-on-campus policy. The board is expected to vote on the policy next month.
For Students for Concealed Carry, a group that’s been lobbying for the right to bear arms on campus for several years, “this is a victory,” said Edwin Stremel, a 2005 graduate of Pittsburg State University and director of the student concealed-carry gun group in Kansas.
When the college exemption expires, concealed weapons would be allowed everywhere on Kansas campuses unless metal detectors — that could run in the range of $4,000 to $5,000 apiece— are installed and staffed at building entry points.
At Kansas State University, for example, adding security measures “could potentially cost tens of millions of dollars,” said Jeff Morris, a university spokesman. “Our annual police/security budget is only $3 million. So it’s not feasible.”
But that’s not to say that Kansas campuses might not end up with some gun-free zones such as sports stadiums, arenas and theaters.
Among the arguments for guns is that concealed carry on campus could help stop sexual assaults and other crimes.
“If a criminal knew a person they were going to rob might have a gun they might think twice before committing that crime,” said Joshua Young, a 37-year-old KU social work student from Kansas City, Kan. Young, who served 14 years in the Navy as a military police officer, said the debate over guns is almost a daily happening in class. Usually he’s outnumbered.
“Most people I think have a lack of knowledge about firearms,” Young said. “All they see is weapons on TV being used to kill. They never think about weapons (being used) to defend.”
Some students on the KU campus support that idea.
“I have no problem with guns being on campus,” said Keith Strawder, a University of Kansas senior from Grandview. “At the end of the day, no gun legislation or sign on the door is going to stop someone from committing some heinous act. I would much rather have the option to protect myself.”
But some campus administrators argue they have more to think about than classrooms and lecture halls, and most are not so eager to have guns in their buildings.
“Our most significant concerns relate to weapons inside certain facilities on campus, including Missouri State’s child care facilities, K-12 school, health care facilities, athletic and entertainment spaces as well as the residence halls and academic buildings throughout campus,” said Ryan DeBoef, chief of staff and assistant to the president for governmental relations at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Some of the gun conversation is how they would be stored. KU has weapons storage in a lockbox in the campus public safety building. But with concealed weapons, students who legally can own a weapon would be allowed to provide their own storage and keep it in their dorm room.
Campus gun owners would only be permitted to expose their weapon when moving it from storage to their person. But what’s not known yet are details such as what happens when a dorm mate doesn’t want to be in a room with a weapon. Will campuses have gun-free rooms or floors?
Some resident assistants have said they already are nervous about knocking on students’ doors when they suspect drinking is going on.
“I don’t want to approach that resident if I know they have a gun,” said Miranda Ganter, a sophomore from Houston and a resident assistant in KU’s Oliver Hall. “How am I supposed to do my job if I can’t even talk to that resident? How am I supposed to talk to a resident who I know might have a gun? I’m scared.”
Others said they worry about guns on campus because there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses a year, according to a study by Emory University in Atlanta. And 54 percent of all completed suicides are done by firearm.
The University of Colorado tried for years to keep guns off its campus but was eventually forced by the courts to allow concealed weapons when it was sued by Students for Concealed Carry on Campus in 2012.
The Colorado Supreme Court ordered the university to abide by the state law that allowed concealed-carry permits for people 21 and over. The university had appealed the matter twice and lost.
Since students, faculty and staff have been carrying guns on the campus, Colorado has had only one incident. A faculty member was showing another his weapon when the gun was accidentally fired. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and struck a faculty member in the leg.
At KU, faculty have said they’d be nervous about having closed-door sessions with students who might be armed and at the same time upset about their last grade. And a member of the KU community stood at the campus session on guns and said he wouldn’t send his child to a college where a threat could be backed up with deadly force. Gregory Cushman, who identified himself as a concerned parent and teacher living in Lawrence, said the university should worry that it may be tough to recruit faculty and students with guns on campus.
Colorado university officials said they have not had a problem recruiting there.
At the University of Texas, Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor emeritus who lectures to hundreds of students at a time, terminated his employment with the university where he’d taught since 1993. Hamermesh said that having students with guns was too risky for him to remain on the faculty.
The school is the site of the second-worst U.S. campus shooting ever. In 1966 a student gunman firing from a clock tower shot 43 people as they crossed the campus green. Thirteen died.
Hamermesh, in an October letter to administrators, said, “With a huge group of students my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law.”
Hamermesh said he would leave for the University of Sydney in Australia, “where, among other things, this risk seems lower.”
Concealed on campus
States where concealed carry is permitted on campus:
- Utah (2006)
- Oregon (2011)
- Mississippi (2011)
- Wisconsin (2011)
- Colorado (2012)
- *Kansas (2013)
- Arkansas (faculty only, 2013)
- Idaho (2014)
- Texas (coming Aug. 1, 2016)
*Universities were given a four-year exemption from the law.