A report published last week by the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress argues the federal government should assume a bigger role in regulating guns on college campuses to counter state efforts to pass laws allowing for the carrying of guns on campuses.
About 10 states have laws in place that compel public colleges to allow firearms on their campuses to varying degrees. Montana was the latest state to pass a law allowing for campus carry earlier this year. A court temporarily blocked the law from going into effect after the Montana Board of Regents filed suit arguing it infringes on the authority granted to the board under the Montana state constitution to set campus policies. Litigation is ongoing.
Bradley D. Custer, senior policy analyst for higher education at CAP and co-author of the report, said the fight over the Montana law caught his attention.
“It perplexed me as to why states in the middle of a pandemic were putting energy into getting more guns in more places, rather than focusing on making sure that their residents were safe and healthy,” he said.
The report outlines a number of steps Congress could take to curb the movement in some states toward adopting permissive campus carry laws. One recommendation is to amend the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which applies to K-12 schools, to ban guns on higher education campuses.
Another recommendation is to require colleges to publish information about campus gun policies and gun crime in the annual disclosures of crime statistics mandated under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The report recommends, for example, that colleges should be required to break down gun-related crimes versus other weapons-related crimes in their reports (currently all weapons-related crimes are lumped together).
Custer acknowledged that some of these steps would be harder to achieve than others.
“I think the appetite to ban guns on campus at the federal level is pretty low, but I think it’s totally reasonable to ask for small changes to the Clery Act so that institutions are providing better crime statistics and better information to students and employees,” Custer said.
“I also think that the Department of Education has the ability to focus on the issue of gun violence on campus,” Custer added. “Dedicating some time to studying the crime statistics that they already have, partnering with the U.S. Department of Justice to think about how can we prevent gun crime on college campuses, I think is a worthwhile initiative.”
There are significant differences in policies regulating firearms on college campuses across states. Some states explicitly prohibit firearms on campuses, while many others have no specific statute or regulation, leaving it up to university leadership to set campus gun policies. Other states have passed laws that allow for guns on public university campuses and limit the ability of governing boards to restrict them.
Ari Freilich, state policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said states that limit colleges’ ability to regulate firearms on campuses to varying degrees include Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.
“The states that have gone down the path of compelling colleges and universities to allow firearms, most of them have done so within the past decade,” he said. “It’s part of the broader trend of the gun lobby and the firearms industry’s interest in expanding who can carry concealed and loaded weapons in public spaces and where they can carry them.”
Freilich said the Giffords Center’s research shows that between 2011 and 2020, 267 bills to allow campus carry were introduced in 14 states. Such measures have been defeated in states including South Dakota and West Virginia.
Two states passed laws earlier this year strengthening prohibitions on firearms on campuses. Newly signed laws in Colorado and Oregon give university and college governing boards authority to prohibit the carrying of concealed handguns on campuses.
Freilich said universities are safer when they are able to restrict firearms.
“If you look at the research and you ask educators and students who are the professionals in the field, they will tell you that campuses are safer environments when and because they are gun-free,” he said. “There is a lot of evidence that indicates very strongly that rates of interpersonal violence and of suicide would rise when there are more guns in the classroom, when there are guns in dorm rooms. When young people in high-stress situations around alcohol in close quarters have access to guns, there would be more accidental shootings, more gun suicides and more gun violence.”
Advocates for allowing guns on campuses frequently cite the right to bear arms and to be armed for self-defense.
“The fact that a notoriously anti-gun and anti-self-defense think tank came out with a so-called report calling for more policies that would deny law-abiding Americans the ability to defend themselves in select locations isn’t news,” Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said in a written statement in reference to the Center for American Progress.
“The fact is only law-abiding people will obey laws regarding gun-free zones — criminals will carry firearms wherever they want and inflict harm at will,” Hunter said. “These zones leave innocent people defenseless. When something bad happens, time is always of the essence and having an instant civilian responder may help save more lives while first responders arrive. That is why the NRA has worked, and will continue to work, to ensure law-abiding people can defend themselves wherever they may need to. And, we make no apologies for that.”