In the wake of new Texas legislation allowing concealed handguns on college campuses, school administrators are determining how to comply with the law while still meeting safety concerns of students, parents and staff.
The “campus carry” law, signed last month by Governor Greg Abbott, takes effect in August 2016, allowing handgun permit holders – who must to be at least 21 years old – to carry concealed weapons into school buildings.
Texas joins seven other states that have legalised concealed weapons on campuses: Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin.
The bill passed despite opposition from the state’s leading universities.
Throughout the debate, the University of Texas System Chancellor, Retired Navy Admiral William McRaven, expressed concerns about the accidental shooting risk and perceptions of campus safety.
“We will not create an environment where signs, metal detectors, storage facilities and additional police are so pervasive that our institutions feel like a military base rather than a university campus or teaching hospital,” McRaven wrote in a letter to University presidents.
But military service is a factor driving support by some students, such as retired Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham. The 41-year-old aspiring lawyer carries his .40 calibre handgun everywhere, including church. But when he attends classes at Temple College in central Texas, he must leave his semi-automatic in his car.
“I can’t carry even though I’m trained, I’m an expert shot, and I have a permit,” Grisham, the president of advocacy group, Open Carry Texas, told Reuters Health. “As someone who fought to support and defend the Constitution, I should be able to defend my life no matter where I go.”
The Texas campus-carry law lets schools carve out “gun-free zones” — and in his letter to University presidents, McRaven promised to analyse the potential for weapons bans in certain areas, like student housing.
“It’s really important for the schools to work with security experts and law enforcement to come up with smart places where guns are excluded,” said Andy Pelosi, executive director of The Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. The organisation was founded in 2008, following a shooting at Northern Illinois University that killed five people and injured 21. The shooter committed suicide following the attack.
“Where there are more guns, there are more gun problems,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s particularly dangerous to have a gun around when people do things spontaneously. In college, from a public health standpoint, brains aren’t fully developed.”
Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees, pointing to suicide rates among young people.
“This is an age group that includes those that for the first time are away from home, mixed with alcoholic consumption, mixed with depression,” Vernick said. “If you add a firearm to that mix, it is very likely that a suicide attempt is fatal.”
How the law will be implemented is unclear not just across the University of Texas system, but at many other institutions as well. Texas Tech University told Reuters Health in a statement that it is working “to develop appropriate rules and internal procedures to make sure that our implementation to campus carry proceeds as smoothly as possible.”
Private institutions may opt-out, and administrators at Southern Methodist University in Dallas have decided to do so. At Fort Worth-based Texas Christian University, communications director Holly Ellman told Reuters Health, “this provision removes any subjective element of the campus carry bill and strongly supports the long-held rights of private property owners in Texas.”
Rice University, in Houston, is currently weapons-free, and it reports “the administration will consult with the Rice community, including students, faculty and staff as required and update our current policy, if needed, by the law’s effective date.”
Patrick Leddin, a managerial studies lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where concealed weapons on campus are banned, advises parents that gun policies are now criteria to consider in college searches.
“Review policies, if someone is allowed to bring a gun on campus, how do they store them, how does the school ensure they are trained to carry, how are security officials trained to address weapons,” Leddin said. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to carry a weapon on campus, because there are too many bad things that can happen.”
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