Debate over guns on college campuses

Apr 10, 2013

George Mason University student and former active duty Marine Andrew Dysart stands on the George Mason campus with an empty holster in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007. In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, Dysart is advocating the right of students with concealed handgun permits to carry guns on campus for protection, a practice which is currently forbidden at George Mason.
Credit Melissa Golden / AP photo

As the debate over guns and gun-related violence continues around the country, many university presidents say guns should not be allowed on campus. Western Michigan University and other schools have long had strict rules on weapons that students and others must follow. But some students say the university’s policy conflicts with a state law allowing people with concealed weapon permits to bring their guns to campus.

Last December, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed legislation that would have allowed concealed weapon permit holders to take their pistols to schools and other public places if they got extra training. The suicide of a Florida university student who had guns in his dorm room in March re-ignited debate about guns on college campuses.

Michigan law now allows people with concealed carry permits, or CPL’s, to have their weapons anywhere on campus except classrooms and dormitories. However, Western Michigan University and some other schools have total bans on guns. Western spokeswoman Cheryl Roland says, “Public universities in Michigan are constitutionally autonomous and they do have the authority to set their policies. So our policy does extend to any property that is a part of Western Michigan University. It has been a policy that has been in place since 1971.”

But a statewide group called Students for Concealed Carry disagrees. Its spokesman, Reid Smith, says that there is no legal justification for campus-wide bans: “If they have a CPL, the state law says they cannot carry in a classroom or a dorm, so anything else is not off limits. The practical reality of it is that the college campuses will create rules that will say that you cannot carry a gun on their campus and those rules really don’t carry the force of law.”

Smith says legal precedent is on his group’s side, pointing out that students and others with concealed weapon permits have never faced penalties if their weapons are discovered on a college campus in Michigan.

But WMU isn’t the only campus in Kalamazoo that doesn’t want guns around. Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyeloran is among higher education leaders around the country who’ve signed an open letter urging action on a national ban on guns on campuses and schools.

“The presidents, I think, were motivated by two things: one, as private institutions, we are not necessarily governed by jurisdiction made by the state. Also, I think we thought that this was enough of an effort of national concern that this was a time when college presidents might want to speak collectively to the public about their best thinking.”

Oyelaran says all colleges and universities are required by federal law to make their campuses safe. The issue hits home with many students and staff members at Kalamazoo College because there was a murder-suicide on its campus in 1999. Wilson-Oyelaran says every school takes the issue of safety and guns very seriously: “The presidents felt that it was appropriate to ask for careful registration and background checks on all guns, reduction on magazines and automatic weapons, in terms of guns that were readily accessible, is something that should be checked, and work to be done in the area of mental health.”

A bill introduced in the Michigan Senate would let K-12 schools, hospitals, and churches decide whether or not to allow concealed weapons, and under what conditions. But it would remove classrooms and dorms as “gun-free zones” on college and university campuses. The legislation would also do away with local boards that oversee concealed weapon permits and give that authority to the State Police.