Issue 10: "To keep and bear arms" - Implications for Governing Boards

Question:

The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution* protects the right of the people to "keep and bear arms." What are the potential implications as more state legislatures consider laws allowing students and others to bear arms on campus?

*A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Answer:

Governing boards of community colleges need to be aware of the changing landscape within their states and the potential of having weapons on campus, even in boardrooms. Community college boards typically do not sidestep the issue and accept responsibility to ensure appropriate policies are in place. Therefore, there is no question that governing boards and the president must continuously review their policies to enforce the law and protect students, faculty, and staff. Safeguarding their institutions is both a legal and moral imperative. This Trustee Talk issue will try to provide a straightforward and clear overview with some guidance while maintaining a neutral stance and staying away from sending mixed messages.

While the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects all Americans' rights to keep and bear arms, each state (and the District of Columbia) is granted discretion in interpreting these laws and as a result each state determines related rights, such as gun permit laws, concealed and open carrying of handguns and assault weapons, and so on. For example, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 23, 2015, "California's Governor, Jerry Brown, signed into a law a measure banning people with concealed weapon permits from taking their guns onto college campuses" at the same time when other states are requiring colleges to allow individuals with "concealed carry" licenses to bring guns onto campuses. The Constitutional right to bear arms permeates our society and extends to our community college campuses.

Given the prevalence of on-campus shootings, beginning with Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 to Virginia Tech in 2007 to the recent Umpqua Community College campus shooting in Oregon, educational institutions' governing boards and administrations are responsible for understanding and keeping current on their respective states' right-to-carry laws and creating and enforcing policies that adhere to these laws while protecting the campus community's safety and the institution's interests.

Most articles about concealed weapons on college campuses cite the deaths of 32 students and staff and the wounding of 17 others at Virginia Tech in 2007 as the catalyst for colleges to re-examine their own security procedures. Spillover from this catastrophic event, the worst by a single shooter in U.S. history, continues. The October 1, 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that resulted in the death of eight students and an assistant professor resonated deeply with the community college sector and provoked President Barack Obama to call for greater attention to gun control. While gun control remains one of the most divisive topics in our nation, governing boards, presidents, and college administrations are uniquely responsible for taking all possible measures to protect their communities against potential on-campus violence while doing so within the scopes of federal, state, and local laws.

Following are guidelines for boards to consider:

First and foremost, make sure the president, college administration, and state community college association stay well-informed about enactment of laws and new guidelines by your state legislature. Don't be caught off guard.

Throughout the nation, many state legislatures are currently debating whether to allow students, faculty, staff, and visitors to carry firearms on college campuses. "Campus carry" is a "hot button" issue. At least 10 states are attempting to add college campuses to the list of permissible places to carry concealed handguns, as reported by Campus Reform, a conservative political action organization, in April 2015, with Texas being the most recent state approving campus carry legislation in June 2015. According to that legislation, the law will apply to community colleges starting in 2017.

  • Campus Reform and Armed Campuses websites also reported that currently 23 states allow colleges to set their own firearms policies;
  • Of the 23, only six (AR, KS, MS, OR, TX, WI) currently allow campus carry. (Armed Campuses is an anti-firearm website developed as a guide to help students and parents make college choice decisions.)

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) website tracks "concealed carry" weapon laws on college campuses:

  • States where "concealed carry" on postsecondary campuses is currently permitted include Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Wisconsin, Texas, and Utah.
  • States where "concealed carry" legislation was proposed in 2015 included Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
  • As of February 2015, 19 states banned carrying concealed weapons on a college campus (as reported by NCSL): California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

Become aware of legislative provisions and appeals in your state.

Trustees and the administration should be fully aware of any existing and developing "concealed carry" legislation in their states, provisions for public institutions of higher learning to opt out, and any attempts to restrict these options. Some governing boards in some states have used the "opt out" provisions, including Kansas and Arkansas. For example in Arizona, according to official sources reported in summer 2015, "Maricopa Community Colleges support the ability of our locally elected district Governing Board to determine the most appropriate policies for our district in all matters including public safety." Maricopa's weapons policy prohibits concealed weapons on campus (any type of deadly weapon, edged weapon, dangerous instrument, or martial-arts weapon), while a person can lawfully transport or store any firearm that is locked in the person's privately owned vehicle and is not visible from the outside.

According to NCSL, Utah specifies that colleges cannot prohibit legal gun permit-holders from bringing concealed firearms on to a college campus. In Colorado, community college campuses removed gun prohibitions after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Board of Regents gun ban on campuses violated state law and could not limit the rights of legal gun permit-holders from bringing concealed firearms onto a campus.
According to the Colorado Community College System, "Student, faculty, staff, and visitor safety is a top priority on our campuses. We follow state law, and in 2012 the Colorado State Supreme Court ruled that concealed carry guns are allowed on college campuses."

Conversely, the University of Wisconsin system campuses and technical community college districts are putting appropriate required signage in place to keep guns off their campuses. In Arkansas, since a 2013 concealed carry law for faculty only passed, every public and private institution has opted out. According to the NCSL site, appeals to remove opt-out provisions have been made for many of these 23 states banning guns.

In most states, legal carriers of concealed firearms must be gun permit holders and at least 21 years old. In Colorado, gun carriers have to disclose only to law-enforcement agents that they carry concealed firearms, and only when asked. The Colorado Concealed Carry Act denotes that teachers, college personnel, and boards shall not exclude any legal carriers from the classroom or meetings, nor may they ask a student whether or not he or she holds a permit. Board counsel should be consulted to identify the varying statutes and provisions within a state. It goes without saying it is important to obtain the latest information from official sources in your state. 

 Some general guidance is to promote campus dialogue from all constituents-students, staff, faculty, and administrators and the community. 

Boards and presidents should collaborate to assure that a clear firearms policy is in place and well-advertised on campus. In addition, the administration should promote campus-wide dialogue to ensure understanding and to identify the underlying safety concerns of the campus. Once the board and administration understands what legislative measures regarding campus carry apply in their states, the board must institute appropriate policies. It is the responsibility of boards to follow the law and, where flexibility is permitted, examine what is in their colleges' best interests.

Budget for costs associated with implementing laws, where applicable.

There are different and conflicting viewpoints about the costs of implementing concealed weapons laws. The Idaho Statesman reported estimates for Idaho's 2014 concealed weapons law for five campuses were $3.7 million for both continuing and one-time expenses for personnel, training, and equipment such as metal detectors. The University of Houston (UH) and University of Texas (UT) estimated costs of up to $46 million needed to update security for its entire system. Such costs have been questioned by campus carry proponents, but according to The Houston Chronicle, estimated costs include weapons storage facilities, hiring additional personnel, educating the campus community about the new law, developing and maintaining consistent campus security procedures and equipment, and keeping concealed-carry license owners in compliance with current gun laws at all times for both the UH and UT systems. 

Assess risk and manage threats: Boards have the duty of care to assess the readiness of the college administration for any unforeseen or sudden disaster.

Governing boards and administrations have a responsibility to safeguard their institutions and be prepared to respond to natural and unnatural disasters. It is important to ensure the administration reviews and assesses all of the college's security and safety policies for consistency and compliance. Some of these procedures and services could include among the following:

  • campus safety and security,
  • mental health support services,
  • college-wide alerts and campus communication procedures,
  • linkages and partnerships with emergency respondents and local and state police,
  • identifying and using available resources provided by federal, state and local agencies,
  • external communication/media procedures,
  • appropriate training for campus personnel,
  • and emergency evacuation procedures.

How colleges communicate has changed dramatically in recent years, particularly with the advent of social media. In response to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, Congress added to existing laws to require a campus emergency response plan and immediate notification to the campus as soon as an emergency is confirmed unless such notification would impede attempts to control the situation. Risk management can include internal and external communication policies and procedures, connections to emergency agencies and First Responders and media relations.

A question to ask your college administration: Does the college leadership have a communications plan and a plan for continuing operations during and after a crisis? While the college's response should be led by the president, the board should be kept informed. The college administration must manage the message and be acutely aware of public scrutiny. Particularly through social media, word of a catastrophic event and the actions and words of college leaders will get out, potentially even viewed instantly by the community and others via the pervasiveness of mobile device video cameras. ACCT's webinar on Safeguarding Your Institution: The Board's Role in Navigating Disaster (http://www.trustee-education.org/en/trustee-webinars) includes resources and models of college communication plans. 

Advocate, engage, and always speak with one voice.

Central to the board's responsibility is the well-being of the college. One of the board's primary roles is advocating on behalf of the institution. It is important for trustees to speak with one voice, and especially so during a crisis. Therefore, the message that individual trustees communicate must be consistent with the messages from the board.

In Summary

The right to bear arms and firearm control and injury prevention are politically divisive issues. While it may be challenging at times to reconcile differing opinions among board members and executive leadership, doing so is necessary for the overall well-being of the institution-academically, fiscally, and legally-but most importantly to the safety and security of the students and staff. The members of the governing board and the president must rally together and collaborate with the administration to ensure the very best way to implement the law and safeguard the campus. In no way are these easy tasks for governing boards and their presidents. Within the first 275 days of 2015, the United States saw 294 mass shootings-and of those, 52 occurred at educational institutions, 30 fatalities and injuring 53. The new reality creates added complexity and stress to the board room.

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.

** See Selected Resources for Communication in a Crisis below. 

Selected Resources for Communication in a Crisis

Handbook:

Crisis Emergency Risk Communication, (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014 edition, online)

Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein