Wednesday, February 13, 2013

House committee considers ban on firearms on college campuses

A House committee will examine Wednesday a bill that would ban firearms from all buildings and athletic facilities on the state's college campuses.

HB 13-1226 would overturn a 2012 state supreme court decision that applied Colorado's concealed carry law to higher education institutions.

The state's flagship college, the University of Colorado at Boulder, has wrestled with the requirement to accommodate concealed firearms.

"Certainly, given that we had a weapons ban in place for forty-plus years, there’s been thinking that banning weapons was a good thing," Ken McConnellogue, a vice president at CU, said.

McConnellogue said that CU forbids weapons in most residence halls and at Folsom Field and that administrators deal with arguments that they should be banned in other circumstances, too.

"The nuance of that, both with the residence hall and the football games, those are essentially contracts," he explained. "We have some discretion over that. There are many more. People say, you are banning them at football games, you can ban them at commencement. You can ban them at guest lectures. At the end of the day, the university is obliged to follow the law and we’re going to do that. The challenge for us is to determine how the law works within the particular environment."

Colorado State University applies limits similar to those in place on at CU's Boulder campus, according to spokesperson Mike Hooker.

"The places on campus where you’re not allowed to carry are the residence halls and our [in] basketball arena [or] during sporting events," he explained.

CSU opened the doors to possession of guns on its campus about nine years before last year's decision in Regents of the University of Colorado v. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, believes that her proposal is essential if the state's universities are to effectively help students who may be suffering from emotional disturbance or mental illness.

"In the years since the Virginia Tech shooting Colorado and other states have responded with increased attention to the mental health needs of their college students," she said. "State colleges have created threat assessment teams so [that] students who are struggling with emotional problems can be identified and provided the help and support they need. But we haven't addressed one of the biggest threats to campus safety, which is the presence of guns on campuses."

The veteran legislator also explained that her bill is an effort to enhance student safety.

"The bill also recognizes that college students are at heightened risk of suicide and impulsive conduct, which the presence of guns will only exacerbate," Levy said.

At the CU-Boulder campus, suicide by gun has been a rare occurrence.

"Within the past seven years we know of two suicides where a firearm was used," Ryan Huff, a spokesperson for the campus police, said. "In both cases they were not students."

In general, young adults are at an elevated risk of suicide. According to a 2004 report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college-age adults.

The CU experience indicates, however, that it is less likely to occur in the absence of firearms.

"Students are safer if there are no guns," Dr. Allan J. Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry and staff psychologist at the University of Rochester and the author of several studies that examine suicide risks among college-age young adults, said. "The evidence for that is pretty strong."

A representative of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention confirmed that assessment.

“We know that reducing a suicidal person’s easy access to lethal means, including firearms, can be an effective strategy for preventing suicide," John Madigan, AFSP's senior director of public policy said. "This is critical because it gives individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need – time: time to change their minds, time for them to get help or time for someone to intervene.”

The number of college students who attempt suicide, and succeed in taking their life, is thought to be about half of the equivalent rate among those who are not enrolled in higher education.

Schwartz explained that, across the nation as a whole, young adults who study on a college campus are not likely to have access to a gun.

"When you look at the proportion of suicides that are completed using a firearm, by students, as compared to the proportion of suicides that are completed using a firearm in the general population, matched by age and gender, for students it tends to be on the order of one-third as common," he said. "For the general population, firearms account for as many suicides as all other methods combined. For students, firearms remain one of the most likely methods, almost equal to suicide by hanging."

“Why is that the case?," Schwartz rhetorically asked. "It’s just a huge difference in the accessibility of firearms."

Most students who use a gun to take their own lives gain access to the weapon by traveling off-campus to their parents' home.

"Sometimes it’s a few tens of miles, sometimes it’s hundreds of miles," Schwartz said. "But it’s a frighteningly relevant story."

The likelihood that more firearms will be used in suicide attempts is not the only factor that raises the risks to student safety on college campuses that are required to allow guns.

According to one 2007 study, a person who attempts to take their own life with a firearm will succeed about 90 percent of the time, which is a rate that exceeds other methods that are commonly deployed in suicide attempts.

To Schwartz, these statistics demand that legislators treat the prevention of guns on college campuses as a public health imperative.

"To allow firearms on campus would be catastrophic," he argued. "It’s not just unwise public policy. You’d double the suicide rate."

Proponents of extending the concealed carry law to college campuses have argued that students are likely to be safer if they have the option of being armed.

"Allowing licensed concealed carry would give potential attackers pause and ultimately give innocent victims a fighting chance,” Students for Concealed Carry spokesperson David Burnett said in a statement.

One problem with this argument is that students face little risk of homicide on college campuses.

Schwartz explained that homicide is a rare event, statistically speaking, on college campuses everywhere in America.

"There are concerns that folks may have about protecting students from harm by others," Schwartz said. "The thinking goes, if they had a firearm, we wouldn’t have these slaughters like what took place at Virginia Tech. We’re talking about 20 homicides among about 10 million students every year. It's a horrific headline when it happens, but it virtually never happens. Can you imagine any city in the United States with 10 million people in which there are just 20 homicides each year? That’s what it’s like on college campuses. There’s virtually no homicide."

The situation on Colorado's public college campuses bears out Schwartz' assertion. There were no homicides on the CU-Boulder campus between 2009-2011, the most recent period for which data is available.

"The last homicide we had here was in 1997, involving two transients," Huff said. "A firearm was not used there.”

CSU experienced the same paucity of crimes involving a loss of life during the same three-year period.

A 2010 report of crime statistics from the University of Colorado at Denver, which is the most recent data available from that institution, revealed that no homicides occurred on the urban campus in Denver during the period 2007-2009.

Rapes and sexual assaults are occasional risks on college campuses in the state. Each of the major institutions on the Front Range report that several occurred during each of the years between 2009-2011.

Nevertheless, crimes involving the use of a gun appear to be rare on college campuses in Colorado.

"The frequency of crimes where guns are used is quite low on our campus,” Huff said.

Twenty-five states ban firearms on campus, while 23 others allow universities and colleges to set their own rules touching on gun possession. Two states - Colorado and Utah - require state institutions of higher learning to permit the concealed carry of firearms on campus.

Michael Carrigan, the chairperson of the CU Board of Regents, did not respond to a request for a comment about the regents' position on HB 13-1226.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, is carrying the bill in the Senate.

The fate of the legislation, should it clear the General Assembly and head to Gov. John Hickenlooper for signature into law, is not clear.

"We are monitoring this bill and have not taken an official position," Eric Brown, a spokesperson for Hickenlooper, said.

UPDATE (2:10 pm MST):

The House Education Committee approved HB 13-1226 on a 7-6 vote.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this article appears at