By Donna Selman, Ph.D.
In April 2007, a gunman opened fire on Virginia Tech’s campus, taking the lives of 32 people including five faculty members and twenty-seven students, injuring an additional seventeen innocent people before killing himself. Then, not even a year later a similar instance occurred in 2008, at Northern Illinois University, where five lives were lost, and an additional fifteen were injured before the gunman took his own life. These two terrifying tragedies served as a spark for a national debate on the right for those who have permits to carry concealed weapons on college campuses, which have predominantly remained gun free throughout history.
Organized groups of students and faculty have developed on both sides of this debate, and legislation to change laws has been introduced in many states across the country. Considering the number of public colleges (38) and universities (15) in the state of Michigan, this debate is of particular importance. The recent introduction of Senate Bill 747 to the Michigan Senate and House Bill 5474 highlights the urgency of input from the Michigan law enforcement community. Michigan officers who serve these campuses as well as those officers whose jurisdictions border and/or encompass these locations have the largest investments in the outcome of this legislation. As of today, the voices of Michigan law enforcement have not been a part of the formal discussion.
Guns on Campus: The Debate
On one side of the debate, there are those who believe that the ability to carry guns on campus provides certain benefits. One of the main arguments includes the deterrence of crimes that are committed on campus. The school shooting tragedies that have occurred in recent years are often used to build support for this stance. Supporters of guns on campuses say that these situations could have had less bloodshed if students and faculty were allowed to carry concealed weapons that they have permits to carry elsewhere. It is also argued by supported that other crimes could be deterred and students and faculty alike would be able to protect themselves from these dangers and feel safe.
The opposition believes that the legal carrying of a concealed weapon on a college campus can potentially create a very dangerous situation. Those who adhere to this belief are concerned that the presence of weapons on campus will detract from the learning environment of college campuses by adding an additional safety concern. There is also concern regarding the lack of training of the persons carrying the weapon. For example, those who have a permit to carry concealed weapons are only required to attend minimal training with their firearm; unlike the extensive training law enforcement officers undergo. Having weapons on college campuses in inexperienced hands, trying to deter crime or stop a gunman can add an element of additional danger and the potential of injury to bystanders. Of additional concern is the volatile climate inherent on college campuses; ie. population density, parties, high levels of stress and alcohol. The addition of guns to this unique environment could be deadly.
Research on Crime — College Campuses
Contrary to popular belief, college and university campuses are generally safe environments. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report (2005), college students are less likely to be the victims of violent crimes than their non-student counter parts. Additional research explains that university campuses experience a significantly lower crime rate than the communities that surround them (Stormer & Senarath 1992). Considering the research regarding crimes on campus, the image of a dangerous college campus is greatly inaccurate and skewed by the incredibly rare media frenzied tragedies that occasionally happen on college campuses. This does not mean that college campuses do not have crime; research has shown that the largest crime problems on campuses are theft and larceny (Fisher, Sloan, Cullen, & Lu 1997).
The research that exists on the prevalence of guns and other weapons on college campuses is minimal. This research estimates that about 7-11% of male students and 1.5-4% of female students have weapons on campus (Meilman & Cashin 1997; Miller, Hemmenway, & Wechsler 1999). The most important part of this finding, regarding the nature of the current study is the characteristics of those students who reported carrying a weapon. The students who reported having a weapon with them at college also reported having higher involvement in many other high-risk behaviors. These highrisk behaviors were mainly surrounding the consumption of alcohol including fights, and arrests for driving under the influence, as well as the use of illicit drugs (Meilman & Cashin 1997; Miller, Hemmenway, & Wechsler 1999). An important facet of information that is missing from the existing data on weapons possession is a breakdown of what those weapons are, and if the students carrying them are legally permitted to do so.
One of the difficulties with the existing literature is the absence of police officers opinions and concerns on this topic. There has been little to no research done on the opinions of police officers on the carrying of concealed weapons. With the increasing presence of police officers on college campuses their voices should be included in this debate. Campus police and the officers of the cities surrounding campuses are ultimately the people who will be confronted with these dangerous situations. Due to the impact that proposed legislation will have on the day to day activities of police officers, their opinions and insights are vital to the discussion and should inform any policy regarding carrying concealed weapons laws on college and university campuses.
The current law in Michigan prohibits even a permitted person from carrying a concealed weapon on specific areas of college and university campuses. According to Michigan Complied Laws Chapter 28, Act 327 of 1927, section 28.425o. Amended, “Premises on which carrying a concealed weapon is prohibited include… (h) A dormitory or classroom of a community college, college, or university.” The implementation of further ordinances regarding the areas of campuses where concealed weapons are allowed comes from the colleges or universities themselves. The current legislation, Senate Bill 747 introduced to the Michigan Senate in August of 2009 aims to change this. Senator Richardville (R), from the 17th district representing the counties of Monroe, Washtenaw, and Jackson, along with other senators, introduced the bill. This bill would amend the handgun licensure law to eliminate the prohibition of licensed individuals to carry their concealed weapons on college and university campuses, including classrooms and dormitories. The other legislation is House Bill 5474, which would prohibit local units of government from imposing certain restrictions on firearm ownership and possession. The House Bill has been amended so college and university campuses will no longer be able to ban concealed weapons from the entire campus, but will still be able to prohibit them in buildings if they choose to do so. So far these bills have only been introduced to the Senate and House, and has not been passed at any level. Despite this they have managed to create a discussion and debate on campuses across the state. It is because of the introduced bills’ popularity and controversy, that the opinions of police officers that have the most insight into college campuses and their culture should be a vital part of the conversation.
The main goal of this research is to discover the opinion of campus police officers and those of surrounding communities on the issue of allowing permitted persons to carrying concealed weapons on a college campus. In addition to their opinions on the matter, uncovering the concerns and experiences that support their opinions is a secondary goal of this research. Their opinions, concerns, and experiences are of the utmost importance considering that they will be the people responsible for responding to the dangerous campus situations and crimes that could arise.
Due to the exploratory nature of this research a mixed methods approach will be used to obtain the most detailed information possible. To conduct the quantitative portion of the research a short online survey will be distributed. Officers will be asked questions regarding their proximity to a college campus, and their views and concerns regarding the current and future policies regarding the carrying of concealed weapons on college campuses. This survey will be sent to all college campus police departments as well as other police/sheriffs departments surrounding campuses. To obtain the qualitative research to enhance the quantitative data, informal interviews will be conducted. These interviews will be onsite with officers from different regions of the state, and are expected to commence at the Police Officer’s Association of Michigan annual meeting, May 26-28 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Look for the short survey to appear in your e-mail or look for the link on the POAM website. Your research team, Donna Selman PhD, Anne Lee, and Kaitlyn Robison, appreciate your willingness to participate and look forward to your insights. If you have suggestions for future research please contact the POAM research team at firstname.lastname@example.org.