After Thursday’s mass shooting in Oregon – the 45th school shooting in the US this year – that left nine dead, attention has focused on the state’s policy of allowing guns on college campuses.
Until recently, state law allowed colleges to ban guns on campus. Most public colleges and universities in the Beaver State, including the Oregon University System, opted to do so.
In 2011, though, the Oregon court of appeals ruled that gun bans on public campuses exceeded the university’s authority.
At issue was a state law declaring that only the state legislature could regulate the use, sale and possession of firearms. The following year, the Oregon state board of higher education approved a policy that banned guns from being brought inside campus buildings. However, the status of campus gun regulations has yet to be fully settled in the courts.
What is clear, Erika Soto Lamb, communications director at Everytown for Gun Safety, wrote in an email, is that “Oregon law actually forces colleges to allow guns on campus grounds”.
Oregon is one of fewer than a dozen states, along with more conservative counterparts like Mississippi and Utah, which allow concealed carry on college campuses.
At Umpqua Community College, the site of Thursday’s tragedy, the policy change came in a meeting of the board of directors on 9 November 2011. According to the minutes, the Oregon Community College Association legal counsel “spoke about the gun law changes which affect the ability to carry a concealed weapon on campus”.
As a result, the counsel noted: “If you have a concealed weapon card, the policy of the board may not restrict a person from carrying a weapon.”
Umpqua’s policy soon changed to allow guns on campus, although “at the time of the shooting, Umpqua Community College had as strong a policy as Oregon law permits”, Lamb said.
A frequent refrain among conservatives is that violent rampages happen in places like college campuses and movie theaters precisely because guns are banned there. The thinking goes that someone setting out to commit a massacre can select a target where he is reasonably assured not to encounter an armed citizen. (There is no evidence of a shooter ever selecting a target precisely because it is a gun-free zone.)
In the Umpqua case, though, at least one student (and likely others) was carrying a concealed weapon during the massacre. Needless to say, this did not prevent the tragedy.
An armed Umpqua student, John Parker Jr, explained just how difficult, if not impossible, it would have been for an armed bystander to stop the attack.
“The Swat team wouldn’t know who we were, and if we had our guns ready to shoot, they could think we were bad guys,” he told MSNBC.
Another reason college administrators tend to support banning firearms on campus is insurance. A rash of state bills to allow guns in classrooms followed the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, but according to Jennifer Lynch, spokesperson at the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety, most were ultimately voted down because insurance companies refused to cover schools with more guns or charged sky-high rates.
“Insurance companies aren’t emotional or political; they look only at the risk,” she said. “They know the risk of having armed people on campus increases the risk of gun injuries and gun deaths.”
School districts in Oregon, for example, have to pay an additional $2,500 premium annually per armed staff member.
Banning guns on college campuses is a controversial issue, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new one. In 1824, a University of Virginia board of visitors meeting decided that “no student shall, within the precincts of the University […] keep or use weapons or arms of any kind”.
Among those at the meeting were founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, widely considered the father of the US constitution, including the second amendment.
Nor is the issue confined to Oregon. Though there have been 142 school shootings in the US since Sandy Hook, the trend in statehouses has moved in favor of allowing more guns on university grounds. In the past few years, Kansas, Idaho and Texas have passed laws allowing concealed weapons on campus.
Professors in these states are now grappling with a new and more armed environment. After Texas passed a bill, SB11, earlier this year to permit weapons on campuses, more than 180 professors at the University of Texas signed a petition vowing to ban guns in their classrooms.
Jessica Smartt Gullion, an assistant professor of sociology at Texas Woman’s University, wrote in a recent Newsweek op-ed about a student so upset over a grade as to throw a public tantrum and bring an intimidating man to the classroom as a threat.
Gullion argued that because this type of situation was not unusual, allowing firearms in universities could result in violence against professors over trivial issues like a poor mark.
Despite the court ruling allowing guns on Oregon campuses, the state is nevertheless viewed as a recent success story among advocates of stronger gun laws.
In May of this year, Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, signed SB 941, a bill that will require background checks on private gun sales.
The following month, Brown signed SB 525, which bars domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms. The measures, which came after a 2012 shooting in a Portland-area mall left three dead, including the shooter, were passed despite opposition from the National Rifle Association.
Lynch said that while there was no current legislation to overturn Oregon’s campus-carry ruling, “given that this is the second school shooting in Oregon in the last 18 months, this discussion will almost certainly come back up”.
This article titled “Oregon shooting occurred in state that ‘actually forces colleges to allow guns'” was written by Scott Keyes in Denver, Colorado, for theguardian.com on Sunday 4th October 2015 11.30 UTC