Karen Hitchcock: Guns on Campus - An Issue of Great Urgency

Mar 14, 2013

Let me start my commentary today with an anecdote:  Eighteen year- old, Jane Doe, had just arrived at her residence hall at a university and was eagerly anticipating meeting her roommate and getting to know other first- year classmates. 

About a week after her arrival, she heard loud music and angry shouting coming from down the hall and went to investigate.  As she approached the room where the altercation was taking place, two students raced out into the hallway, shots were fired and Jane was mortally wounded.   

Thankfully, this is a made up event….to my knowledge, no such shooting has occurred at a University.  But it is the possibility that it could which keeps university presidents awake at night.   Indeed, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, some 350 college and university presidents signed a letter  in which they strongly recommended much stricter gun laws (University Business Magazine, 12/19/12).

Credit Flickr/Smarter's Photos

To quote from the letter: “We are college and university presidents.  We are parents.  We are Republicans, Democrats and Independents….As a group; we do not oppose gun ownership.  But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses. 

We oppose such laws.…we come together to ask our elected representatives to act collectively on behalf of our children by enacting gun safety measures, including: ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms…”.  I totally concur with this position.

As stated in a recent article in the New York Times (Richard Perez-Penna and Susan Saulny), “Opponents of allowing the carrying of concealed weapons [on campuses of public universities and colleges] say it increases the risk of accidents, and of ordinary confrontations escalating to lethal force”.  Having served as president of two universities, I have personally witnessed such confrontations, confrontations which can be especially heated if occurring in the presence of drugs and alcohol, an unfortunate reality on many campuses across the nation.   Most educators fear adding guns to these kinds of situations; they feel it would be an unacceptable risk, especially in an environment where many students are still minors.

In a 2012 Overview of Guns on Campus prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures, it was pointed out that 21 states banned carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus, and in 23 states, colleges and universities were granted the right to decide whether to “ban or allow concealed weapons on campuses”.  However, at the time of this report,  5 states – Colorado, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Oregon and Utah - had passed legislation specifically permitting concealed carry on college campuses; although in two of these states, Wisconsin and Oregon,  the universities had  decided  not to permit guns  inside of university buildings. This is a complex and evolving issue in which the concealed weapon laws in a number of states are being challenged and/or opposed by many universities,  despite the support of a number of student groups like Colorado’s Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.

Supporters of allowing concealed weapons on campuses,  as indicated in the already- cited New York Times article,  “…say [that allowing concealed weapons]  gives pause to criminals and a fighting chance to victims.”  Time does not permit a full response to such logic; however, let me simply quote a student from the University of Texas who feels that “ …the creation of a ‘citizen vigilante force’ would only make an emergency situation confusing for law enforcement.”

This is a highly- charged, complex legal and social issue which is still being played out on our nation’s campuses.  A Commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009 by Sandra J. McLelland and Steven D. Frenkil stated that we shouldn’t be complacent because [many] states [have] failed to pass legislation permitting concealed weapons on campuses.  The authors felt that “…much of the legislation will undoubtedly be reintroduced as legislators and pro-gun groups persist in pushing their agendas and attempting to impose their views about the best way to protect campuses.”  Indeed, this is an ongoing issue, with Texas and Arkansas most recently filing legislation to permit concealed weapons on public university campuses.  Fortunately, like a large number of other states, Arkansas will allow its universities to decide whether to allow concealed carry on their campuses.  

Gun control, writ large, is a multifaceted issue which engenders passion on both sides of the argument. However, in terms of the particular issue of concealed carry, I believe strongly that permitting concealed weapons on a university campus is simply wrong.  We owe it to our students to provide them with the safest possible living/learning environment.  Let us all speak out with one voice to ensure that well- informed and well-considered state legislation makes this possible on all  our nation’s campuses.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.