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Hot on Campus | January 28, 2013

Guns in backpacks


State legislators debate the benefits of allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campus

A Harris Precinct 4 Constable blocks off an entrance to the Lone Star College North Harris campus after a shooting on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)

The national debate over gun control continues, and university leaders and state legislators-aiming at different target measures for campus safety-are once again divided on the draw.

Tuesday's shooting at Lone Star College, in Houston, Texas, left three wounded and revived debate over the wisdom of allowing students, faculty and other staff to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. While some believe concealed carry rights improve school safety, others strongly oppose new legislation that would allow hidden firearms, arguing that having guns on campus will not prevent future violence.

"We do not believe it is necessary or appropriate to allow guns on campus," said Gary Susswein, director of media relations at the University of Texas at Austin. "We do not believe that allowing guns on campus will enhance campus safety or security."

The incident at Lone Star College, a community college 20 miles north of Houston, Texas, came just one week after state Sen. Brian Birdwell filed legislation to allow those with concealed handgun licenses to carry firearms for personal protection on college campuses. Birdwell filed the bill a day after President Barack Obama proposed gun control measures to reduce violence in the nation.

"For me, this isn't just about a firearm," Birdwell said in a statement. "It's about trusting citizens with their God-given, constitutional rights."

Texas, with its robust gun culture and 38 public universities with some 500,000 students, is a prime battlefield for the concealed weapons debate. But Birdwell is not the first to lobby for such legislation. Despite wide support from the Texas legislature, similar proposals have failed in past sessions due to opposition from influential college presidents, who worry that guns on campus could diminish safety and increase chaos at shooting scenes.

Along with UT-Austin, representatives from other Texas campuses have reiterated these concerns.

"Permitting guns would introduce a new set of potential challenges to campus safety, and therefore we don't believe guns on our campus are a good idea generally," said Baylor spokesperson Lori Fogleman.

Two private universities, Wayland Baptist and Lubbock Christian University, confirmed their stances against campus carry. Others, such as South Plain College, remain undecided.

Texas is not the only state grappling with the campus gun rights issue. In the wake of recent shootings, particularly at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., six other states are considering the prospect of allowing concealed carry. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Wyoming and Kansas have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, bills enabling licensed permit-holders to carry firearms on campus.

Only eight states currently allow guns on campus, while 21 ban the practice altogether. Just months after the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the University of Colorado lifted its gun ban, allowing students with concealed-carry permits to keep guns at off-campus housing for the first time in 40 years. Campus Reform, a resource and networking group for conservative student activists, reports College Republicans at the University of Toledo plan to introduce a student government resolution demanding permission to carry concealed weapons on campus.

But other universities remain staunchly opposed to the idea. Following the Newtown shooting, which left 20 children and 6 adults dead, a group calling itself College Presidents for Gun Safety spoke out in an open letter opposing concealed carry legislation. The letter, signed by more than 300 public and private college presidents, also asked lawmakers to reinstate the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons and require consumer safety standards for all guns.

Meanwhile, groups such as Students for Concealed Carry and the National Rifle Association (NRA) argue laws prohibiting concealed handguns on college campuses leave students and faculty vulnerable to criminals.

"Campus carry bills would at least give students, faculty or staff a fighting chance," said David Burnett, spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry. "Criminals don't follow the rules, so we need to change them to favor victims instead."

Burnett believes freedom to protect oneself is "absolutely a human right." Devon Zuegel of The Stanford Review agrees, noting in a recent article killers carry weapons regardless of their legality, rendering gun bans ineffective.

Concealed carry permit holders are "statistically a very law-abiding group," she adds, and should be permitted to defend themselves because relying on police officers and security guards in school shootings has proven insufficient: "It is wrong to disarm an individual when effective protection cannot be provided in compensation … When targets of violence, people have the right to options beyond waiting for help to come."