When Guns Come to Campus, Security and Culture Can Get Complicated

George Frey, Getty Images

A new controversy over concealed firearms on campuses flared in Utah this week. Above, an instructor shows teachers and professors how to use a handgun lock during a class in 2012. The gun-rights group that sponsored the concealed-carry training waived the class fee for educators.
October 16, 2014

When a feminist critic of video-gaming culture canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University this week, many observers were quick to condemn the misogyny of the death threats that had led her to pull out.

But the speaker, Anita Sarkeesian, was just as quick to reframe the issue: It wasn’t the threats themselves had that forced her to cancel, she said. It was the university’s response—a response she considered inadequate.

And so Utah State became the latest poster child for a continuing problem—the challenge facing public universities in states that permit people to carry concealed firearms on college campuses. Such institutions can find themselves balanced on a knife’s edge between safeguarding their campuses and complying with state gun laws.

Ms. Sarkeesian, founder of the popular "Feminist Frequency" web video series, had been scheduled to speak at Utah State’s Taggart Student Center. But on Monday a number of faculty and staff members received an email from someone claiming to be a student and using the name "Marc Lepine"—a reference to a Canadian man who shot and killed 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989.

In the email, which was provided to The Chronicle by the university, the sender claimed to have "a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs," and threatened to carry out "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if Ms. Sarkeesian’s appearance was not canceled.

After receiving the message, the university consulted with state and federal law-enforcement officials and prepared to heighten security for the event, said Tim Vitale, Utah State’s executive director of public relations and marketing. Those measures included sweeping the room where Ms. Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak for explosives, prohibiting attendees from carrying bags into the student center, and putting more officers—in uniform and undercover—in the room.

But Ms. Sarkeesian requested stronger tactics. She asked the university to require attendees to pass through metal detectors and to institute a temporary ban on concealed firearms.

Utah State officials told her they couldn’t take those steps. As Mr. Vitale put it: "We can’t by law keep legal permit holders out."

To many observers, that admission was alarming—a sign that statewide campus concealed-carry laws could keep an institution from adopting procedures to make its own students, faculty members, and guests feel safer.

In many cases, there is only so much a public university can do. "Once the legislature decides the issue and the governor signs it," said Andy J. Pelosi, president of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, "colleges are at the mercy of the law."

Loopholes and Costs

Seven states now have laws that allow people to carry concealed firearms on campuses, and lawmakers in 14 more states have introduced bills this year that would permit concealed carry, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Utah was the first state to pass such legislation, and its law is something close to a blanket policy with few loopholes, Mr. Pelosi said. Private universities can prohibit concealed carry on their campuses, said Larry A. Stott, chief of police at Brigham Young University, but public institutions have no such choice.

Many other states’ policies come with exemptions. Arkansas, for example, allows only faculty and staff members to carry concealed weapons, and Idaho prohibits guns in dormitories or venues that hold more than 1,000 people.

Michael R. Newton, field-services captain for the police department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said his state’s concealed-carry law, which took effect in 2011, left institutions some wiggle room. "The legislation was written in a way that allowed businesses and colleges to make the decision on their own if they would allow concealed carry" in their buildings, Mr. Newton said.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Wisconsin system’s general counsel, state universities and colleges can prohibit guns indoors by placing signs at the entrance of campus buildings, residence halls, and athletics facilities.

But signage has added costs, and many institutions go much further. In Idaho, where a concealed-carry law took effect in July, responses from state universities have varied. Idaho State University—where a professor accidentally shot himself in the foot last month, a week into classes—has armed campus officers at "substantial cost," according to a spokesman. The University of Idaho plans to update a campus video-surveillance system.

Boise State University, meanwhile, said it would spend an additional $1-million a year on safety measures. Students now shuffle through metal detectors on the way into football games, and campus police officers now are more armed.

Uncertainties and Syllabi

With new policies come new questions. Adrienne L. King, director of communications at Idaho State, said the law had created "gray areas"—like a hallway on the university’s Meridian Campus that connects a university building, where concealed weapons are allowed, to a high school, where they aren’t.

Even how professors refer to the law can be an issue.

On the first day of classes at Boise State this fall, Katherine V. Huntley, an assistant professor of history, went over procedural matters as students passed copies of her syllabus around the classroom. She talked about office hours, turning in homework, and a new "safety measure" she was taking, asking students to leave their belongings at the front of the room before taking their seats.

Any other year, this might have been a story about a professor's taking a stand against the distractions of Facebook and text messaging. But this year, something else came into play: Ms. Huntley wanted to keep weapons at the front of the room and away from students.

After some students complained about her new policy, Ms. Huntley said she was told she couldn’t use concealed weapons as a reason to separate students from their belongings. A campus spokesman said he wasn’t aware of the specific event but noted that the university had approved syllabus language that professors can use regarding concealed carry.

Soon after the Idaho law passed, Ms. Huntley wondered if the university could keep a list that would give university officials an idea of who on the campus had the necessary "enhanced" permit to carry a concealed weapon there.

The answer in Idaho and other states seems to be "no."

Information about enhanced concealed-carry permits is not part of the public record, said Matt J. Dorschel, executive director of public safety and security at the University of Idaho. And there are other reasons, he added, that colleges and universities may not maintain such lists.

"We don’t maintain a list of people who exercise other legal rights, and we can’t create one in this case," Mr. Dorschel said. "If there was somehow a list, either purposely or subconsciously, people would argue someone discriminated against the person because of their views on firearms."

‘Unarmed and Unafraid’

The law hasn’t just forced campus-security officers to react, according to Patricia S. Hart, an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho. Faculty members, she said, have also had to make decisions on how to handle guns in the classroom.

After the Idaho State professor’s gun went off in class, shooting himself in the foot, Ms. Hart said, the tables were turned: Instead of faculty members worrying about armed students, students are now worrying about armed professors.

Ms. Hart decided to use the incident as a teaching lesson. "I am unarmed," she said as she stood in front of her classroom one day this fall. "I won’t be shooting myself, and I won’t be shooting you this semester," she told her students. "If you come into my office, you don’t have to worry that guns are hidden."

She said she had adopted an "unarmed and unafraid" policy, and is thinking about sticking the slogan to her door.

But in many corners, fears persist. At Boise State, doors to faculty offices are more often closed during office hours, and some professors are opting to spend more time off campus or to meet with students in off-campus locations, said Leslie J. Madsen-Brooks, an assistant professor of history.

"People are worried," she said, "not that a discussion in class will get heated and someone will pull a weapon, but about a student getting upset about something in class and later using a weapon to intimidate a faculty member or a student."

A New Normal

While professors and students raise concerns at first after concealed-carry laws pass, the policy eventually becomes the new normal on college campuses, according to Phillip C. Harding, the Rocky Mountain regional director of Students for Concealed Carry.

"Once the law is passed, you get little resistance and people start going with it," he said.

Jerry Peterson, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, agreed. Mr. Peterson was an outspoken critic of allowing guns on campuses in 2012, when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that universities were not exempt from the state’s concealed-carry law. But there haven’t been any problems on the Boulder campus, he said, and the issue has died down.

With the new controversy at Utah State, however, it’s likely that the issue will be reanimated, at least on that campus. The problem—for Utah State, as for many public universities—is that it’s hard to know what to do next, or what the university could have done differently. Mr. Vitale said that Utah State officials had done everything they could to secure the venue, and noted that the university hasn’t had any incidents like this before.

Mr. Stott, the police chief at Brigham Young, said that while people may be quick to judge Utah State, its hands were tied. As a public institution, it had to comply with the law.

"If you allow weapons on campus under the law, and someone comes to campus and does not want them, it’s tough to say you can’t bring your weapons today," said Mr. Stott. "It wouldn’t work."