Trustee Talk, Issue 15: Guns on Campus – A Loaded Issue, Part I

Question:

How do Boards of Trustees create policies on highly controversial issues such as guns on campus for their community colleges?

 

Answer:

Polarization over weapons and safety on college campuses has reached an all-time high. The issue of guns on campus is a pivot point for many boards across the country. Some feel safe with guns; others feel terrorized by them. These ambivalent views of campus firearms keep the issue alive on our campuses, in the news, in our political chambers, in our communities, and in the boardroom.

Even on campuses where shootings and deaths occurred, feelings are mixed. More than two years after 10 deaths, Umpqua Community College is still sensitive to the trauma.

Trauma is pervasive, according to Umpqua Community College President, Debra Thatcher — so much so that the board does not yet have a weapons policy established for this rural college in Oregon, an open-carry state that allows concealed weapons with a permit. According to Thatcher, “Our safety training has a light touch; we offer simulations, but active shooter training is not mandatory. There’s not even a memorial on campus. For some, the campus is still too fragile.”

It’s a complex issue everywhere. In a 2016 issue of Contemporary Justice Review, researchers Bruce A. Arrigo and Austin Acheson from the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte propose that current policy has yet to appropriately balance the competing demands of Second Amendment liberty guarantees against personal safety concerns and learning-environment interests. Further, they argue that societal forces and human dynamics “constitute cultural impediments to achieving meaningful consensus-building legislation.” Nevertheless, as a corollary to our initial story on campus carry in 2016 (available at https://www.acct.org/page/trustee-talk-issue-10), this Trustee Talk provides updates to help boards and college leaders more effectively deal with gun policies and practices on their campuses.

Getting feedback from students, faculty, and staff is a first step.

Process becomes important when college leaders deal with controversial topics on their campuses. Most important is providing constituencies with basic information about their state’s weapons laws, many of which are confusing, according to Matt Franz at Clark State Community College in Ohio, who reviewed 12 community colleges in Kansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin that had recently enacted campus carry laws for his doctoral dissertation on the topic.

 

Foremost is getting the pulse of the campus: Many community college presidents have undertaken lengthy feedback sessions, held open forums, and conducted surveys of students, faculty, and staff. At Clark State, all three senates voted against allowing concealed carry. Jo Ann Blondin, president of Clark State, told Community College Daily, “The decision rested with the board of trustees, but I wanted to get as much information as possible from people on campus on how we should approach the issue.” The board decided to keep its current ban on weapons on campus. Ohio is an open-carry state, and according to current Ohio law, persons with a valid concealed-carry license and active military members can now carry concealed handguns in a school safety zone subject to certain exceptions, including not being allowed to enter school buildings or premises.

 

Knowing the community gun culture is the second step.

Boards represent their communities, so understanding the region’s gun culture is important. According to a 2015 report, Gun ownership and social gun culture, there is wide regional variation in gun ownership across the United States. While one-third of U.S. residents owned guns in 2014, the prevalence of household firearms ranged from 10 to 66 percent across the 50 states.

In 2013, the greatest percentage of gun ownership was in Alaska, at 61.7 percent, and the least was Delaware with 5.2 percent. Large states like California, with 20.1 percent gun ownership, and Texas, with 35.7 percent, were below and above, respectively, the mid-range national gun ownership rate of 29.1 percent (Gun ownership and social gun culture, Kaleson, et al., Injury Prev, June 29, 2015). 

Mental health issues on campus

Trustees also need to be aware of the mental health issues faced by students on their campuses. These issues have implications for gun policies, as Everytown for Gun Safety notes that suicide by firearm makes up the majority of both gun deaths and suicides in the United States, according to the American Journal of Medicine (2016: 129 (3) 266-273) and a list of dangerous gun policies in 2017.

It is also important to note that, while keeping firearms out of the hands of people with profound mental illnesses is commonly discussed, a number of facts are commonly misunderstood. For example, according to The New York Times, “in an analysis of 235 mass killings, many of which were carried out with firearms, 22 percent of the perpetrators could be considered mentally ill.” It is important to note, however, that what might be considered “mental illness” is very broad, and serious mental illnesses that are most likely to be diagnosed and potentially surface through a background check as a “red flag” are uncommonly associated with mass shootings. “Overall,” according to the American Psychiatric Association (2016), “mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent 1 percent of all gun homicides each year.”

According to former National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, “…mental illness contributes very little to the overall rate of violence in the community. Most people with [a serious mental illness] are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with [a serious mental illness]. In fact, people with [a serious mental illness] are actually at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators.”

And according to a peer-reviewed literature review by Jonathan M. Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., and Kenneth T. MacLeish, Ph.D. in the American Journal of Public Health (February 2015), “connections between mental illness and gun violence are less causal and more complex than current U.S. public opinion and legislative action allow.” They assert that highly complicated nuances involved in mental illness classification and diagnosis, and a broad and diverse array of societal considerations, makes directly correlating mental illness and gun violence factually incorrect and unproductive. “Ultimately,” they write, “the ways our society frames these connections reveal as much about our particular cultural politics, biases, and blind spots as it does about the acts of lone, and obviously troubled, individuals.” 

Mental health issues on both two- and four-year campuses are significant, however. As part of overall efforts to protect student well being, trustees should determine the statistics for their own colleges as well as assess campus and community resources for mental health treatment. The mental health and well being of students is a primary concern with respect to student success as well as individual students’ safety and campus safety; at the same time, campus leaders and policies should be cognizant that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violent crimes — including suicides — and not necessarily public safety risks. 

What do students want?

A survey of 15 Midwestern colleges and universities “Do College Students Want Concealed Weapons On Campus?” (Moneywatch, September 13, 2013) indicates that an overwhelming number of college students (68 percent) “are opposed to concealed weapons where they attend school.” The survey showed that 16 percent of undergraduates owned a firearm, 20 percent had witnessed a crime on their campus involving a firearm, 66 percent did not feel carrying a gun would make them less like to be troubled by others, and 79 percent did not feel safe if faculty, students, and visitors carried concealed weapons on campus. Most students were also concerned about increased suicide and homicides on campus. In February 2018, Newsweek reported that polls suggest that “gun control opinions don’t differ greatly by age.” A three-year Gallup poll asking whether U.S. gun laws should be more or less strict found that 57 percent of all respondents favored stricter gun laws, with 58 percent of people ages 18 to 29 favoring stricter laws.

Impacts on free speech and people’s sense of power

As stewards of the entire campus, boards also need to consider other complex implications of gun policies for students, faculty and staff. In his 2016 article in The Atlantic, “The Armed Campus in the Anxiety Age,“ Georgia Tech faculty member Ian Bogost states, “If faculty and students cannot discuss contentious issues in the open without fear of inciting angry students to draw their guns, then democracy could be undermined.”

Bogost also notes a commonly cited argument for allowing guns on campus. “Safety cuts both ways, and appeals to security have long justified support for expanded gun rights in America,” he writes. “If college campuses are among the few venue where guns are prohibited, argue gun advocates, they will become targets for attacks.“ 

‘Wholesale collegiate anxiety’

Rather than safety or speech, Bogost feels that universal anxiety is the underlying issue driving the gun debate. Noting that today’s 21-year old students were entering school on 9/11, he states, “Today’s students are beset by unease.” He concludes that the loss of state support for education, the focus on testing and rankings, and high student debt contribute to “massive, wholesale collegiate anxiety.”

Bogost proposes that college leaders spend time and legislative effort de-escalating the massive anxiety among college students today. “We can do that by providing the resources to teach them well as kids, to help them secure productive places in society,” he writes. “The great tragedy of the push to extend gun rights to every nook and cranny of American life is not that firearms make people feel greater power and great control. It’s that they are so stripped of that power and control that they should need to seek solace in guns in the first place.” 

The third step is safety: campus safety and the community college context

Rather than focus just on controversial gun policies, boards often turn first to broader safety issues. Community colleges and other higher education institutions are penetrable “open access spaces that are target rich and vulnerable to attack.” According to CNN, there has been, on average, one school shooting every week this year, including both K-12 and higher ed campuses. Others, including the Independent, agree that “educational institutions seem to be the prime target of attack for gunmen.”

Safety is costly

A post-Parkland analysis by IHS Markit noted that the school security market has surged to about $2.7 billion a year. The next wave of products available to school districts could include facialrecognition cameras and impenetrable classroom doors, the firm said. Some school districts, however, already use a network of internet-based surveillance cameras and door alarms that can alert and track intrusions remotely, monitored by control centers in each school. In some places, these systems have stopped young intruders and interrupted serious incidents.

Boards exercise their fiduciary responsibilities when funding campus safety

A 2015 article in Forbes magazine, “The Push for Campus Safety Means More Guns, Officers, Security Spending,” notes the increase in public safety officers has in itself resulted in more weapons on college and university campuses: guns (94 percent), chemical sprays (94 percent), batons (93 percent), and tasers (40 percent). Along with armed guards, institutions are also securing their campuses with technology that facilitates crime prevention and investigations. Among the trends: 

  • Schools are rethinking building design to protect students from mass shooters with bullet-resistant glass, electronic gating, more walls, foolproof alarm systems, and safe rooms.
  • Schools are spending billions on high-tech security. But are students any safer? The uncertainty of how to prevent school shootings has created a business opportunity for security cameras, gunshot-detection sensors, ID cards with panic buttons, districtwide connected emergency warning and announcement systems, and digitized and shareable floor plans. Rather than research on technology-based solutions, however, federal funds are now being redirected toward “antiviolence training, metal detectors, anonymous tip lines and better mental-health services.” 

Campus mental health services — clinical and policy crises

As stated earlier in this article, boards should attend to the mental health needs of people on campus; this is where their policymaking can reap great changes to benefit students.

The statistics are clear: College students are more likely to use a gun to harm themselves than to protect themselves in a mass shooting. Mental health, not mass shootings, is the bigger issue for colleges and universities. Umpqua’s president noted the lack of mental health services in the small rural community. (See Trustee Talk #11, Being Open to Discussing Mental Health Issues: The Board’s Role on College Campuses on the ACCT website.)

To highlight both the campus crisis and the policy crisis, The JED Foundation (JED) provides information on protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for teens and adults. Even though health professionals were worried about students’ mental health issues in colleges for years before the more recent spate of school shootings and suicide events, research and funding have remained scarce. According to JED, the demand for services has dramatically outpaced the capacity and rate of growth of available mental health care systems. Again, boards should review the services available at their colleges.

What are policymakers doing?

According to Everytown Research, the 115th Congress has worked to roll back existing gun laws, making it easier for people with mental illnesses to get guns. Rollbacks have kept 433,000 records for people with mental illness out of the gun background check system. Everytown Research also asserts that there is no evidence that arming teachers will protect students, as some lawmakers have suggested. Access to a firearm, respective of age, triples the risk of death by suicide and doubles the risk of death by homicide.

Many national educational and public safety organizations oppose the proposal. The National Association of School Resource Officers, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), and the Major City Chiefs Police Association, which represents 75 police forces from large cities in the U.S. and Canada, agree that arming teachers is not a good idea. The National Rifle Association claims that arming teachers will stop active shooters during a school shooting, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation found only one armed civilian intervention — by a U.S. Marine — was successful.

Recommendations for boards

Key findings from a study (Baker & Boland, 2011, p. 683) found that there is strong division on gun issues on campuses and often in the surrounding community. Among the recommendations made by college leaders from Clark State Community College in Ohio and Independence Community College in Kansas during a presentation at the 2018 American Association of Community Colleges Convention were to:

  • Increase communication
  • Foster a collaborative and inclusive policy development process
  • Leverage available research and data to inform policy development.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) Statement on School Safety urges leaders to:

  • Examine national and state policies on access to weapons
  • Maintain safeguards for Americans to engage in peaceful protests
  • Support students and educators who engage in appropriate civil action
  • Increase teacher, school, and community resources to appropriately address students’ mental and emotional health.

Among other issues to consider:

Red Flag laws. College leaders should be aware of Red Flag laws that empower family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily block a person from having guns if they pose a danger to themselves or others.

Support raising the minimum age to 21 for purchase of semi-automatic rifles and shot guns. Statistics show that 18 to 20-year-olds commit gun homicides at a rate nearly four times greater than adults 21 and older.

 

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the association. 

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