4 Ways the Federal Government Can Improve College Campus Safety in States With Lax Gun Laws
In April 2021, a Tennessee Tech University professor with a concealed carry permit accidentally discharged his weapon in his office while attempting to place the firearm back in the holster. In 2014, a professor at Idaho State University, who also had a concealed carry permit, shot himself in the foot in a classroom full of students. These are just two examples of what can go wrong in the 12 states where people can legally carry guns on college campuses, putting the safety of students and employees at risk. As more states weaken gun laws—like Montana did in February—the federal government must step in to take corrective action.
To prevent shootings on college campuses, Congress should ban carrying guns at higher education institutions, like it already does on K-12 school grounds, with similar exceptions such as for law enforcement and military programs. Or, to at least ensure that college students and employees have clear information about state laws, campus policies, and campus crime statistics related to gun violence, Congress should update the Clery Act with new reporting requirements. In addition, the U.S. Education Department can support institutions by studying campus gun crimes and offering guidance on safety strategies.
Where state campus carry laws leave college students and employees vulnerable to gun violence, these efforts from federal policymakers can restore a sense of security at America’s colleges and universities.
Guns on campus
Gun violence is a threat to college students and employees. From 2013 to 2021, Everytown for Gun Safety tracked 244 incidents of gun violence at colleges and universities—including attacks on others, suicides, accidental discharges, and shootings by police—that resulted in at least 155 people injured and 86 killed. Though horrific campus shootings such as those at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Umpqua Community College in 2015 are rare, the gun lobby uses them as justification to push an agenda for allowing more guns on campus. It does so by repeating discredited myths and falsely claiming that students and faculty would be safer if they could carry firearms. As a result, state lawmakers are increasingly passing laws to allow more people to carry guns on campus—or “campus carry.”
Many states and institutions recognize the dangers of allowing firearms on campus and prohibit them: Seventeen states as well as Washington, D.C., prohibit or set parameters on firearms on campus, and an additional 21 states leave this decision to each institution. However, there are 12 states that either explicitly require colleges to allow people to conceal and carry guns on their grounds or have no laws that prohibit it. If federal policymakers do not intervene, more states are likely to adopt similar dangerous policies that will increase the presence of guns on college campuses.
Campus carry in the news
So far in 2021, two Western states have passed opposing laws on campus carry, one giving higher education institutions more authority to ban guns and the other taking away that authority. These recent examples are evidence that the issue of guns on campus is currently being debated in state houses, and the safety of campus communities is on the line.
In February, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed H.B. 102, allowing residents to carry a gun without a permit in most places—including college campuses. Campus carry was set to go into effect on June 1, 2021, until a judge blocked it following the Montana University System Board of Regents’ lawsuit. The university system argued that the Montana Constitution gives it the sole authority to set its own policies. If the university loses in court, Montana will become the latest state to allow guns on campus.
In contrast, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed S.B. 554 in June, restoring the authority of higher education institutions to ban all guns from their grounds. This resolves a legal battle from before 2011 when an appeals court ruled that the now-defunct Oregon State Board of Higher Education could not issue administrative rules to block people with concealed handgun licenses from carrying guns on campus. Since then, institutions skirted the ruling by implementing campus-level policies that mostly banned guns from campus. Now, Oregon institutions have better legal cover for their existing weapons policies and could go farther by banning all guns on campus.
Improving campus safety
As states increasingly loosen their laws to allow more guns on college campuses, the federal government can intervene through congressional and administrative actions.
1. Ban guns from college campuses
Congress has the authority to supersede state laws and ban guns from college campuses. In fact, federal law already mostly prohibits carrying guns on the grounds of K-12 schools. The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 bans guns on public or private K-12 school property, except when carried by law enforcement officers or by someone during an approved school program. However, people with licenses to carry can also bring firearms on school grounds, if state laws do not prohibit them—a dangerous loophole that makes schools less safe. Congress should extend the federal gun-free zones to include higher education institutions while also closing the loophole. This change in federal law would set the floor for campus safety standards that states can build on to implement even stronger protections.
2. Add policy disclosures
If guns are not universally banned, an evolving patchwork of state campus carry laws will determine who can carry a gun on campus, where, and how. The variations in these policies make it hard for people enrolled or employed at higher education institutions to make informed decisions about their personal safety. Fortunately, there is already a federal consumer protection law for disclosing information about campus safety. The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (Clery Act) requires institutions to publish campus safety policies, crime statistics, and information about crime prevention programs. Yet Congress should bolster the Clery Act to provide the public with better information about gun policies and gun-related crimes.
Three new policy disclosure requirements should be added to the annual security report that all institutions publish on their websites each year. Currently, it is too difficult for consumers—such as a prospective college student—to research a state’s campus carry laws and institutional policies to understand if, when, and where a gun can be carried or stored and by whom. Institutions should be required to publish the relevant parts of their state’s campus carry laws, if applicable, as well as their campus weapons policies to clearly identify this information, which some institutions already do.
In states with campus carry laws, institutions should also be required to publish detailed information about where guns can be carried. Although campus carry laws typically set parameters on where people can and cannot carry guns, it is up to institutions to identify these spaces more specifically on their campuses. For example, under Michigan’s law, licensed concealed carry holders can bring pistols onto campuses, except for in sports arenas, stadiums, dormitories, and classrooms. Exemptions in other states include faculty offices, administrative buildings, and fraternity and sorority houses. Institutions should identify campus buildings and spaces where guns can and cannot be carried, so that students and employees can know exactly where to expect to encounter, or to avoid, firearms.
Lastly, institutions should disclose if their campus security personnel carry firearms. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked nationwide calls for police reform—including campus police—and knowing if campus officers are armed is critical information for students and employees. The Clery Act already requires institutions to describe in their annual security report if their law enforcement authority has sworn officers and if they can make arrests. That information alone, however, does not address their use of weapons. Colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are already required to report this information to students and employees under a state law and typically do so in their annual security report. This would be a simple addition for institutions in other states.
3. Improve crime statistics
To understand the scope of campus gun violence, better statistics are needed than what is currently required under the Clery Act. According to guidance from the Department of Education, institutions track when a person is arrested or referred to a campus official for disciplinary action related to a weapons law violation, which includes not just possession and use of firearms but also knives, explosives, and other deadly weapons. For clarity, the weapons category data should be broken down by firearms versus other weapons. In addition, when other crimes—such as murder or aggravated assault—are committed with guns, they should be tracked and reported in a separate table for gun-involved crimes. (Currently, if a murder is committed with a gun in violation of a weapons law, the incident would be marked as one murder and one weapons violation, but a reader would not know from looking at the murder statistic alone that a gun was used.)
Similarly, colleges and universities should track the number of people injured or killed by gun violence on campus and its related public property. Similar victim statistics are already reported for campus fires and can serve as a model.
Finally, in states with campus carry laws, additional violations of state law should be tracked and reported separately, such as when a gun is illegally brandished, accidentally discharged, or left unattended. These improvements in crime statistics would present a more accurate picture of campus gun crimes and the effects of campus carry laws.
4. Study crime and offer guidance
While previous education secretaries have acknowledged campus gun violence, the current Department of Education should do more to support colleges and universities. President Joe Biden has already called for gun policy reform, and there are several ways his administration can help.
First, the department should monitor the landscape of state campus carry laws and carefully study its own campus crime statistics. It should also update its 2010 report written with the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service—“Campus Attacks: Targeted Violence Affecting Institutions of Higher Education”—with special attention to crimes committed with firearms in order to learn how to prevent campus shootings. Second, the department should partner with the U.S. Department of Justice to study and share evidence-based strategies for reducing gun violence in both campus carry and non-campus carry states. Lastly, the Education Department should offer technical guidance to institutions that seek to implement such strategies or other policy changes toward preventing gun crimes.
Students and employees of colleges and universities deserve a safe environment in which to learn and work, and having guns on campus puts everyone at risk. In states with campus carry laws, people are even more vulnerable to gun violence. The federal government can and should step in to protect campus communities from gun violence.
Bradley D. Custer is a senior policy analyst for Higher Education at the Center for American Progress. Marissa Edmund is a senior policy analyst for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center.
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