Virginia Tech University. Sandy Hook Elementary. Umpqua Community College.
These institutions hail from different parts of the country and span multiple levels of education yet share the provision of excellence in education. They are responsible for changing lives of students by empowering them through education, yet each also is well known for another reason. Each of these educational institutions share the traumatizing story of active shooter events which changed the lives of students, faculty, staff and leadership.
In the wake of violent incidents such as these, colleges and universities across the country have dramatically increased the priority on safety and security on campus. Higher education leaders have increased the focus and the resources available to improve the safety and security of students, faculty and staff on campus.
Additionally, state legislators have responded from their position of leadership by developing new statutes addressing possession of weapons in educational facilities, facilities where weapons have been historically prohibited. In fact, the vast majority of colleges and universities until very recently banned all guns on campus.
This article comes from the current issue of AACC’s Community College Journal. Read the entire issue online.
Over the last several years however, legislators have passed new laws allowing, and in some cases requiring, institutions of higher education to allow concealed weapons on campus. As colleges and universities consider concealed carry policies, leaders must remember that policies tend to be based more on people and their behavior than processes.
Put another way, it can be difficult to develop and enforce a policy without sufficient research, discussion and buy-in. Even well-intended policies may be ineffective if they are too complicated to understand or enforce.
Responding to concealed carry policies
I conducted research last year on the topic of college concealed carry policy to better understand the processes involved in the development of these policies. In particular, my focus was on these processes from the president’s perspective. The research resulted in some interesting findings which included the following general themes:
- Most colleges indicated this particular policy process was the most divisive in recent memory, including strong support and opposition.
- In general, the respondents tended not to articulate an alignment between the institution’s mission and the policy.
- A strong need for collaboration was noted, leading to a longer development and implementation process than similar college policies.
- Colleges dramatically increased their focus on safety and security for all students, faculty and staff.
- States which forced institutions to develop concealed carry policies tended to provide a lack of clear direction on how those policies were to be developed, resulting in some confusion and conflicting legislation.
One president indicated, “They gave discretion to universities and colleges to declare parts of campus to be gun-free zones, but they also gave you the caveat that you cannot have so many gun-free zones that it’s generally prohibitive. They give you latitude, but it’s very vague with warnings.” Several of the presidents surveyed noted that in their states, community colleges were able to delay implementation to allow four-year universities to work on understanding the legislation and implementing it in a policy.
Many of the leaders included in this research openly admitted that prior to campus carry policy implementation, there was a strong belief that individuals on campus were already carrying guns. As one president stated, “You’re deluding yourself if you think we don’t already have students on campus carrying. They’re just good at concealing it, and they have a concealed carry permit probably. You don’t know that they’re carrying, but they are.” This sentiment, while not widely articulated, was one of the underpinnings of the divisive nature of the campus concealed carry policy process.
Emotion vs. data
A popular opinion also emerged that the process for the development of the concealed carry policy included more emotional basis than data and research, which fueled some of the disagreement on the topic. Due to the varying levels of understanding of the legislation and overall lack of clarity, people tended to rely on their own experience to provide a foundation for their own opinions rather than an informed factual basis.
For this reason, governing boards often rely heavily on the college president to provide information and recommendations regarding the policy language. In one example, the board of trustees was in strong support of allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons on campus but made very specific requests of the president to locate and present research on the topic. They were very focused on ensuring their decision to allow weapons on campus was based on research and not just anecdotal evidence.
In this case, the president indicated that in the years since they implemented a policy allowing concealed weapons on campus, it has been a “non-issue” and is rarely even discussed. The president indicated that since the policy has been in place there have been zero incidents of accidental or purposeful issues with weapons. Additionally, this president shared that the institution’s governing board was eager for research in the form of studies and data before they would move forward on a policy.
At a recent conference, a number of presidents and trustees shared their perspectives on campus concealed carry policies. One of the participants commented that state legislators are increasingly forcing colleges to allow concealed weapons or they leave the decision on allowing concealed carry to the institution. Another comment from a trustee indicated that there was a belief that states may be passing some of the accountability for potential future events down to the institution. Essentially, empowering the institution to allow or disallow concealed weapons on campus as legal absolution of responsibility should a catastrophic event occur. These are just a few of the passionate and valid discussion items generated at a number of the conferences in which this topic has been a part.
The discussion will not end anytime soon, due in part to the growing engagement of presidents, trustees and the campus community. College community members are increasingly becoming interested in campus safety and balancing cultural expectations with campus norms.
College leaders are challenged with ensuring their mission remains strong while addressing legislation that may create uncomfortable conversations. As leaders continue to grapple with difficult decisions involving guns on campus, the resources are growing to provide support for the decisions. Open communication, transparency and collaboration continue to be critical components of a successful policy development and implementation process.