The Volokh Conspiracy

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Guns on university campuses: The Colorado experience


Texas appears poised to join the growing number of states allowing licensed, trained adults to carry concealed handguns for lawful protection on the campuses of public universities and colleges. In Texas, as elsewhere, opponents offer a parade of horribles about the supposed results: heated classroom discussion of Sophocles will result in gunfights; students will threaten to kill professors who gave them a bad grade, and so on. Since Colorado has had licensed guns on campus for over a decade, it may be helpful to look at the experience there.

For most of Colorado's history, firearms were legal on public university campuses. That began to change in 1970, due to concerns about campus violence by terrorist organizations such as the Weather Underground.

In 2003, the Colorado legislature enacted the Concealed Carry Act. The statute was written by County Sheriffs of Colorado, the organization which represents all 62 of Colorado's elected Sheriffs. The Act passed with broad bipartisan support, including all Republicans and almost every Democrat except some from Denver and Boulder. The National Rifle Association and the Firearms Coalition of Colorado supported the Act.

According to the Concealed Carry Act, a carry permit is valid "throughout the state," with certain exceptions. Private property owners can ban guns on their property. (For example, the Aurora movie theater that was attacked in July 2012 had exercised its right to forbid licensed carry.) At K-12 schools, guns may be in automobiles, but not carried outside the automobile. Government buildings can prohibit licensed carry, as long as they make themselves into genuine gun-free zones: public entrances to such buildings must have security personnel with metal detectors.

The bill has no special exemption for public institutions of higher education; an amendment to create such an exemption was proposed on the House floor, and defeated. Of cousre since the Concealed Carry Act requires that a permitee be at least 21 years old, most undergraduates were not eligible for permits. When the Concealed Carry Act became law on July 1, 2003, Colorado State University (30,000 students; main campus in Fort Collins) promptly complied. In 12 years of licensed carry at CSU, there have never been any problems caused by licensed carriers.

Things were different at the University of Colorado (30,000 students, main campus in Boulder). Then-Attorney General Ken Salazar issued an non-binding opinion stating that the University of Colorado did not have to obey the Concealed Carry Act. The University of Colorado is the only institution of higher education specifically named in the Colorado Constitution, and some cases have held that CU does not have to comply with some generally-applicable statutes, unless the statute specifically states that it covers CU.

CU enforced its gun prohibition vigorously, based on a 1994 Regents' policy that guns are "offensive" to the University's "values." So, for example, getting from one side of Boulder to the other often requires driving through a public street which cuts through campus. University police would arrest drivers on that street who had a licensed handgun in their automobile.

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus brought a lawsuit a few years later, represented by attorney Jim Manley (a recent CU Law graduate) of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. SCCC was founded in 2008, on the night of the Virginia Tech murders, and advocates for campus safety for students.

SCCC lost in the state district court, won in the Court of the Appeals, and the case went to the Colorado Supreme Court. I filed an amicus brief presenting the views of County Sheriffs of Colorado. The Sheriffs argued that the right to carry firearms is important for public safety, because law enforcement officers cannot be everywhere at once. Further, adults who are granted permits by the Sheriffs to carry a handgun anywhere in the state do not become a menace to society when they set foot on campus.

As the brief explained, Colorado's law, like the law of almost every other state, provides an objective process for issuing permits to responsible adults. In Colorado, an applicant must be at least 21 years old, pass a fingerprint-based background check, and a safety-training class taught by a nationally-certified instructor. Even if a person meets all these conditions, the statute instructs the Sheriff to deny the application "if the sheriff has a reasonable belief that documented previous behavior by the applicant makes it likely the applicant will present a danger to self or others."

As a result, in Colorado, as in other states, persons with carry permits, tend to be highly law-abiding. For example, in the five-year period between 2009-13, there were 154,434 concealed handgun carry permits issued in Colorado. During this same period, 1,390 permits were revoked. 931 of these permits were revoked following an arrest. Contrast this with the arrests of over 200,000 Colorado adults in 2013 alone.

The Colorado Sheriffs' support for defensive arms carrying is confirmed by national data. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts in-person interviews with several thousand persons annually, for the National Crime Victimization Survey. In 1992-2002, over 2,000 of the persons interviewed disclosed they had been raped or sexually assaulted. Of them, only 26 volunteered that they used a weapon to resist. In none of those 26 cases was the rape completed; in none of the cases did the victim suffer additional injury after she deployed her weapon.

Professor Gary Kleck, author of the above study, then conducted a much broader examination of NCVS data. Analyzing a data set of 27,595 attempted violent crimes and 16 types of protective actions, Kleck found that resisting with a gun greatly lowered the risk of the victim being injured, or of the crime being completed.

In 2012 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that the University of Colorado must obey the Concealed Carry Act. This was consistent with precedent that CU has no special exemption from civil rights statutes.

But in 2013, a bill was introduced to outlaw licensed carry on all campuses. Rape survivor Amanda Collins testified before the Senate State Affairs Committee about how a ban on campus carry had affected her life. As a 21-year-old, Ms Collins had a Nevada defensive handgun license. But the University of Nevada at Reno did not allow licensed firearms on campus. She was raped in the parking garage of the campus police station, which was closed for the night.

The crime took place just a few feet from an emergency call box. "How does rendering me defenseless protect you against a violent crime?" she asked the Colorado Senators. State Senator Evie Hudak told Collins that if Collins had been carrying a gun, statistics showed that the gun would have been taken from her. Actually, statistics show that fewer than one percent of defensive gun use results in the defender's gun being taken.

"Respectfully senator, you weren't there," Collins responded. "Had I been carrying concealed, he wouldn't have known I had my weapon; and I was there. I know without a doubt in my mind at some point I would've been able to stop my attack by using my firearm. He already had a weapon of his own; he didn't need mine."

Because the rapist was not stopped that night, he later raped two more women and murdered one.

Senator Hudak resigned in December 2013, to avoid a recall election.

The experience on Colorado campuses since 2003, and at the University of Colorado since 2012, shows that adult students or professors who are permitted by their local Sheriff to carry a concealed handgun for lawful protection do not perpetrate unlawful aggression. There has been one case in which an employee at CU's dental school was showing off her gun, and accidentally fired it. She was immediately and properly fired.

Colleges should respect the rights of responsible persons, such as Amanda Collins, to protect themselves. As the Sheriffs told the Colorado Supreme Court, law-abiding adults who have been licensed to carry guns throughout the state should retain their self-defense rights when they attend or teach at a public institution of higher education.