Thursday, March 08, 2012

Universities hope to keep
guns off campuses

By Jamey Dunn

Proponents of concealed carry hope that it’s their year to end the state’s ban on carrying firearms in public, but a provision aimed at universities is causing some tension.

Illinois is the last state in the nation to bar any form of concealed carry for residents. A bill that would have allowed concealed carry came up for a House vote last year but failed to reach the three-fifths majority that it needs to pass. “I think we’re very close. I think it’s the closest we’ve every been, actually,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg who sponsored that bill and a new incarnation being considered now. (For more on the push to pass concealed carry in Illinois, see the current Illinois Issues.)

University presidents and chancellors came out hard against concealed carry legislation last year, sending an opposition letter to legislators that asked for an exemption for university and college campuses. “We fully support the concept of individual rights, a core value at each of our universities, but we also must uphold the security of our campuses. We believe that, at the minimum, an exemption to any future law that permits the carrying of concealed weapons on all college and university campuses within the state is fundamental,” the letter said.

Under the new legislation, House Bill 5745, universities would have the option to ban concealed carry on campuses. However, if they did, they would be opening themselves up to potential lawsuits. The bill says: “If a community college, college or university elects to prohibit the carrying of firearms on its campus, it shall be civilly liable for any injury from a criminal act upon a person holding a permit for carrying a concealed firearm who was prohibited from carrying a concealed firearm on the premises.”

Supporters said they wanted to give colleges the option to prohibit guns on campus. However, Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the Illinois Rifle Association, said, “You can’t have it both ways.” Vandermyde explained the liability provision to a House committee that approved the bill this week. “If I’m there and I have a carry permit and because of college campus policies, I can’t have my firearm on me and something like [the ]Northern Illinois [school shooting] happens and I’m injured, they bear all liability for my injuries because I was disarmed and unable to protect myself.” In February 2008, a former NIU student shot more than 20 people — killing five students and himself — on the school’s campus.

Not surprisingly, university officials are unhappy with the new bill. “Our view is that is has no basis or precedent at all. It turns the issue of civil and criminal liability on its head,” said Paul Palian, a spokesperson for Northern Illinois University. “That would be like Ford’s Theatre being held responsible for John Wilkes Booth shooting Abraham Lincoln.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, last year, lawmakers in 18 states considered bills that would allow for some version of concealed carry on campuses. Conversely, recent school shootings also led to calls for greater restriction of guns on campuses. Last year, two states considered bills banning concealed carry on campuses, but neither bill passed. Twenty-five states allow universities to decide whether students can carry guns on campus, while 21 states ban guns on campus, and four require campuses to allow concealed carry.

A recent court ruling overturned university rules in Colorado that barred concealed carry on campus. The state’s law did not include an exemption for universities, but the University of Colorado Board of Regents argued that it had the right to ban guns on campus. “We are disappointed the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the Board of Regents does not, in this instance, have the constitutional and statutory authority to determine what policies will best promote the health and welfare of the university’s students, faculty, staff and visitors, whose safety is our top priority,” Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Inside Higher Ed. “The Board of Regents is in the best position to determine how we meet that imperative. We will abide by the ruling and determine how it affects our campuses.”

A study from the state’s three public universities found that allowing concealed carry on campus would cost them $13.3 million in upfront spending for signs to inform students of areas that they cannot carry weapons and lockers to hold guns while students are in classrooms. The study also found that universities would have to spend about $3.1 million in annual costs such as additional security. But Arizona proponents of concealed carry on campus said that the study overestimated costs.

Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said he is concerned that allowing guns on campus would mean big costs to universities during tough budget times. “The accommodations to this — I’m telling you we’ve had our budget cut $30 million per year since 2002. How are we going to afford additional millions of dollars in spending, when the state owes us $112 million right now as we speak?” Poshard asked.

University representatives say they have other logistical concerns, as well. “I’m sure that what is on university administrators’ minds is how do you implement this situation,” Palian said. He said that Northern would not support a provision in the bill that would allow for concealed carry on roads that pass through universities, even if the institution had opted to ban concealed carry on campus. “We have a thoroughfare right through central campus,” he said. “That would mean people could transport guns through there.”

David Steelman, director of government relations for Western Illinois University, said he is concerned that a provision that allows for concealed carry on public transit would allow students to carry guns on the university’s bus system that is set up through the local transit district. “Keeping in mind that that bus operates very late on a Friday night and picks up many students downtown … that makes some people very nervous.”

Steelman said that he does not understand why universities are the only entities in HB 5745 that would be subject to liability if they opted against concealed carry. “We’re all a little bit puzzled and uncertain as to why that language was included. It seems a little punitive to us.” Under the proposal, guns would be barred from other state-owned buildings, such as the Statehouse, courts and schools.

 During the hearing, some lawmakers in support of the bill warned that the liability clause might hurt the legislation’s chances of passing. “This just from the guy who’s been around the track quite a few times. The objective here is to move toward concealed carry, and I support that,” said Gilson Republican Rep. Donald Moffitt.  “I have voted for it every time. We look kind of silly here in Illinois now that we’re the only state not to have it. The added provision in here about the liability … that may not be building support.”

Vandermyde said that other entities do not fall under the liability provision because many of those groups have come forward to negotiate on the bill. “The position of the universities, community colleges and everybody has been just an absolute flat out no. And so they don’t want to have a dialogue, so maybe this will push the dialogue,” he said.

But Steelman said the universities have been at the table. “I think we did a considerable amount of negotiations last year when this came up. We spoke specifically about exemptions we had hoped might be contained.” He added, “Sometimes people’s interpretation of failure to negotiate is that it’s not what they want.”

 Poshard said that he thinks there is still plenty of time to work on finding compromises. “We would like the ability to continue to discuss this,” he said. “Because we do believe that universities represent an exempted area.”

 Phelps said during the House hearing on the bill this week, “This is deadline week [to get bills approved by committees], and we want to get this out … so it is a work in progress.” Phelps says he is open to negotiate. “Here’s the deal: We just found out really not too long ago where they stood,” Phelps said. “We’re willing to sit down with anybody.”

Representatives from the University of Illinois, Illinois State University and Northeastern Illinois University all said their institutions oppose concealed carry on campus. Calls to Eastern Illinois University and Governors State University were not returned.

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