State universities, dealing with debt, must now pay to safely implement campus carry bill

Concealed Carry

West Virginia’s universities, many of which are dealing with financial issues, are now tasked with figuring out how to implement a bill that allows people with a concealed carry permit to carry firearms in many areas of public college campuses. 

Safety measures can be pricey, and the bill requires universities to place firearm storage cabinets on campus, including in residence halls. 

“We have to designate in our residence halls where students will be able to store their weapon … where they can do that safely,” said West Virginia University Dean of Students Corey Farris.

The bill, called the Campus Self-Defense Act, goes into effect July 1, 2024. Its lead sponsor argued the legislation was a mark of “freedom.”

It didn’t come with any state funding for its requirements. 

“It’s going to be expensive depending on what level of funding we do,” said Marshall University Chief of Police Jim Terry, who added that the university is considering buying special metal detectors that can cost up to $100,000. 

“We know we’re going to have to put some modifications in construction, and that will come from the university [budget],” he said. “Hopefully, the Legislature will appropriate funds and help us with that.”

In 2019, when lawmakers attempted to pass a similar campus carry bill, the Higher Education Policy Commission estimated it would cost $11.6 million. That same year, WVU estimated it would cost $350,000 to implement it plus an annual price tag of the same amount for security personnel. 

Campus leaders and faculty are at the beginning of their plans for implementing the legislation, and they’re not finished tallying up how much it will ultimately cost. But, they’re tasked with the bill’s requirements — and figuring out how to prioritize safety — as they’re dealing with budget issues that have led universities to slash academic programs and jobs. 

The legislation’s rollout also comes as students are dealing with increased mental health challenges after the COVID-19 pandemic drastically disrupted college campuses. 

The bill passed despite strong objections from some campus leaders. Students feared a rise in gun violence. A new study by West Virginia University researchers warned that the bill could contribute to a rise in the number of gun-related homicides in the state. 

Shepherd University Vice President for Student Affairs Holly Frye said the thoughts of gun-related incidents on campus, including suicides, keeps her up at night. She’s part of Shepherd’s team that’s figuring out how to implement campus carry.

“The mental health of our students is in such a fragile state,” she said. “We’re trying to implement this bill, and that makes us take every single step with much care.”

Undetermined price tag for campus carry rollout

The bill, hailed by the National Rifle Association, followed “campus carry” bills in 11 other states. 

“This is just saying the law-abiding people have a right to be able to carry if they choose to do so,” Gov. Jim Justice said when he signed the bill into law earlier this year. “We just hope and pray that there’s never a problem. We can’t ensure in any way that there won’t be a problem.”

The bill passed with parameters — it bans the open carry of a firearm on a college or university campus and allows institutions to implement exceptions. Students, staff and visitors must have a valid concealed carry permit. 

The legislation allows universities to prohibit people from taking guns into certain areas, including residence hall rooms (guns are allowed in lounges and study rooms), on-campus daycares and areas where people are receiving mental health services.

Marshall, Shepherd and WVU all formed committees to figure out what the legislation’s rollout will look like and how much it will cost; some of those committees got to work even before the bill passed. The respective groups include representatives from campus safety, student housing, athletics, performing arts programs, faculty and more. 

“It’s important to us that students and staff feel heard in this process,” said Diana Davis, an associate professor at WVU and Faculty Senate chair-elect. She is spearheading the bill’s rollout at WVU.

One of the biggest questions for the state’s public universities is how students with a valid license to carry a gun will store their firearms on campus. 

Farris said that WVU is considering centralized secured storage lockers on its Evansdale and Downtown Morgantown campuses, which is permitted in the bill. They’ll also have to provide storage on the Beckley and Keyser campuses. There are WVU students who are excited about the bill, he noted. 

Marshall and Shepherd leaders are leaning toward providing lockers in individual rooms of students who meet the requirements to request one. A small gun safe can cost nearly $200 or more. 

“It’s still early, but we have to figure out the best way to provide these gun safes,” said Frye. 

There could also be costs associated with signage, metal wands to search for firearms and education materials. 

Davis said faculty and administration have voiced concerns about paying for campus carry rollout when WVU is facing a $45 million budget shortfall. The university’s Board of Governors voted in September to cut 28 academic programs, and the university has eliminated hundreds of positions, including faculty. University leaders said they’ll have to cut library staff, as well. 

“At this point, any additional expenses without any state support is an expense,” she said. 

Marshall and Shepherd reported budget deficits, too. 

“Our number one concern is to make sure the campus is not only safe but that the students feel they are safe. In order to do that with this new bill, we know there will definitely be additional costs,” Frye said.

Shepherd is dealing with a $6 million structural deficit. Frye said the cost of the campus carry legislation is a “real concern.” 

“Some of those expenses can be passed onto our students, but frankly, that’s the last thing we want to do,” she said. 

According to the bill, a university “may charge a reasonable fee for the use of the secure storage location or a safe.”

Shepherd received a $4 million grant from the Department of Justice specifically tied to campus safety. Frye said that the university asked to reroute some of that money to implement the campus carry legislation’s requirements — leaving other campus safety initiatives unfunded. 

The bill gives universities permission to ban firearms in areas with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators, like football stadiums, for example. 

At Marshall, Terry said he wants to create uniform policies for each of the school’s larger venues, including its football and soccer stadiums. “Consistency, so all of the fans know what they’re coming into,” he explained.

“We’re talking about hiring a consultant to help us with venue security if necessary,” he added.

Terry, along with others interviewed for this story, stressed the importance of education as the bill goes into effect. They want students to understand their rights and the bill’s guidelines. They also very much want students to feel safe and have access to mental health resources. 

Ahead of the bill’s passage, WVU President E. Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Brad Smith, who opposed the legislation, sent lawmakers a letter that included concerns for student mental health. 

Frye said it’s been a top concern for her, too.

“I’m personally much more concerned about student suicides than I am about [active shooters],” Frye said. 

“For me, the volatility of the world right now and the mental health of our students make this bill even more complex than anyone meant it to be.”

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