VA Tech Shooting Inspires Legislation
By Daniel C. Vock and Pauline Vu
In reaction to the Virginia Tech shooting spree, a Louisiana state lawmaker and higher education officials unveiled legislation Wednesday (April 18) to make clear that the state’s public universities can ban guns in student dorm rooms.
Legislation by Louisiana state Rep. Richard Gallot (D) seeks to remove any doubt that guns are banned from college dorm rooms, despite a conflict between a state law allowing Louisiana residents to keep guns in their homes and one banning firearms at universities. The Louisiana proposal is the latest illustration of the collision between gun-free policies at state-run universities and state laws that are making it easier for citizens to carry firearms in other public places.
While some states explicitly allow college campuses to ban guns, public universities such as Virginia Tech have had to defend their firearm restrictions in the face of laws in 48 states allowing citizens to get permits to carry concealed firearms. Sometimes, students have been the ones to challenge campus gun bans. Virginia this year refused to pass legislation that would have let students with concealed-carry permits bring firearms on campus.
The bill would have trumped a gun ban in effect at Virginia Tech, site of Monday’s rampage that left 32 people and the student shooter dead. Gallot, who plans to introduce his gun-free dorm bill when the Louisiana Legislature convenes April 30, said he couldn’t get any traction when he pushed for the same measure in 2003. “But, in light of the events of (Monday), certainly I think it takes a tragedy sometimes for the public and for lawmakers to recognize that there is the potential for trouble,” he told Stateline.org.
The Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, and administrators from Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe are backing the legislation, Gallot said.
Ada Meloy, the director of legal and regulatory affairs for the American Council on Education , a national group representing colleges and universities, said she thinks most universities that have addressed the issue would prefer to ban the weapons. “There generally is not a need to have weapons on a university campus, and I believe the prominent belief is that having weapons does not contribute to the campus atmosphere in a positive way,” she said.
But some gun bans have faced challenges from within their own student body. A graduate student at the University of Oregon unsuccessfully sued the school in 2004, claiming the campus’ policy banning firearms violated state laws that give the Legislature the power to make gun policy. At Ohio State University, the student government staged a campus-wide vote last year on whether to seek a legal change so that students could carry concealed weapons, a notion students overwhelmingly rejected.
And in Minnesota, a student has threatened to sue over a 2003 policy prohibiting guns on campus. In at least one state, the state’s concealed-weapons laws have trumped a college’s gun-free policy.
The University of Utah last month gave up its six-year feud with the state Legislature to preserve the school’s gun-free policy. The Legislature prevailed in its efforts to include public college campuses under its law allowing citizens with permits to carry concealed guns. But a new law signed last month by Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) allows students to request roommates who don’t have a concealed-carry permit.
State universities in Colorado and Nebraska have secured opinions from their state attorneys general backing up their long-standing gun bans even in the wake of new state concealed-carry laws. The University of Colorado at Boulder sought the advice of the state’s attorney general in 2003 over the validity of its weapons ban, after Colorado lawmakers enacted a new concealed carry bill. Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) upheld the university’s policy. Bronson Hilliard, a spokesman for the university, said that despite occasional criticism, the ban has “widespread acceptance” even in a Western state that generally supports gun rights.
“The last thing you want on a college campus is a bunch of young, armed folks running around with varying levels of experience or training with handguns. It would not create a safe environment,” Hilliard added. “College campuses are places of high passion. They are places of argument and debate and dissension. They are places where young people are figuring out who they are. You throw guns in the mix, and you have the prescription, I think, for more things like this, not fewer,” he said.
But Utah state Sen. Michael G. Waddoups (R), sponsor of a 2004 law that led to the invalidation of the University of Utah’s gun ban, defended the right of students and others on campus to carry guns. He said that gun permit-holders are responsible and have proven they have clean backgrounds. “Unless the university can properly protect them, an individual should have the right to protect himself. If the university is able to protect them, I have no problem with them banning guns. But, so far, I haven’t seen any of them that are doing it,” Waddoups said.
To adequately protect students, universities would have to add more police and screen visitors for weapons as airports and courthouses do, Waddoups said. Dave Workman, senior editor of Gun Week magazine, said there is no reason to treat universities differently than other public spaces. “Horrible crimes can occur whether the location is a college campus or an inner city. Criminals don’t make appointments and they don’t establish the venue in advance, they just attack and act and leave us to sort out the mess,” he said.
A 2003 survey by the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, showed that 82 of 150 of the biggest universities in the country ban all firearms on campus. All of the rest placed restrictions on firearms. Private universities and colleges can generally ban guns on their campuses, because of their rights as private landowners.