Hearing set on allowing guns at state-run universities

Posted: January 08, 2014

At West Chester University, guns are banned on campus except for "appropriate circumstances" approved by the director of public safety.

But that may change this month when the system governing West Chester and 13 other Pennsylvania state universities votes on a policy that would allow firearms in open areas of campus, such as sidewalks and parking lots.

Weapons would continue to be banned in areas deemed "sensitive," defined as inside campus buildings, including residence halls, student centers, and cafeterias. Weapons also would be banned from sporting and entertainment events, commencement ceremonies, and other indoor and outdoor areas that draw large numbers of people. The ban would also apply to outdoor class meetings, field trips, and camps.

Under the proposal - developed by a task force made up of members of the system's board of governors, university presidents, students, faculty, and law enforcement - weapons include firearms, knives with blades longer than three inches, swords, clubs, bows and arrows, explosives, and ammunition.

Seven of the universities - California, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock - already have adopted policies that closely mirror the proposal, according to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the governing body.

Their actions, the first of which occurred in April 2012, followed recommendations from lawyers for the state system, who said a blanket prohibition is legally unenforceable. Supreme Court cases in recent years have struck down blanket bans, though allowing regulation in sensitive places.

"Those campuses have not experienced any related changes in crime trends since implementing the new policies," a statement by the state system noted.

For West Chester, Cheyney, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg, Indiana, Mansfield, and Clarion, the proposed policy would be a departure from existing practice.

The public will be allowed to comment on the proposal before a state system panel at 10 a.m. Thursday in Harrisburg. It's likely to get an earful.

"We strongly oppose it," said Lisa Millhous, a communication studies professor at West Chester and president of the school's branch of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. "We're concerned about some kind of shooter scenario in a building and the safety of people walking across campus."

Millhous said faculty members at the 15,845-student campus - the system's largest - also are concerned about the potential of having guns in cars.

"As soon as everybody knows you've got a gun in your car, it's a way for people who don't have a license to get a hold of stuff," she said.

She said she is not swayed that a blanket ban could violate the Constitution. "I would rather take the moral high ground and say this is wrong," she said. "If this goes to the highest court and they tell us we have to, then, if there's a shooting, it's on them. It's not on us."

The faculty senate at West Chester and the faculty in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services also have issued statements against the proposed policy. The statewide faculty union also opposes it.

"Given the free flow of traffic on a college campus to academic buildings, dormitories, and extracurricular events, APSCUF believes that the best policy remains one where deadly weapons are prohibited from campus (except as secured by university police)," the union said.

At Cheyney, officials will follow whatever policy the state system sets, said spokeswoman Pam Carter.

"That's the best practice for us," she said.

The public can attend Thursday's panel discussion in Harrisburg at the Dixon University Center, 2986 N. Second St., or submit comments or questions in advance to publicsafetytaskforce@passhe.edu. The webcast can be viewed at www.passhe.edu.

The system's board is likely to vote on the policy proposal Jan. 23.

Kutztown University last spring began to allow firearms in open areas of its 289-acre campus in Berks County. The university said it would still restrict weapons in buildings and athletic facilities "or while attending a sporting, entertainment, or educational event on university property or sponsored by the university."

Such narrowly tailored policies have withstood constitutional challenge. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that George Mason University's ban on guns in buildings and at events does not violate the Constitution. George Mason also is a public university. Around the country, other public institutions have taken similar steps to keep within federal and state constitutional law, according to Ada Meloy, general counsel to the American Council on Education.


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