Photo courtesy of Peretz Partensky
Earlier this year, Tennessee House Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) proposed a bill that would allow full-time employees of Tennessee state colleges and universities to carry guns on campuses with a valid permit. Since then, the bill has received protest from state university student governments, as well as criticism from proponents and opponents of campus-carry laws.
Student representatives from both Middle Tennessee State University and Austin Peay State University have taken action to speak out against allowing faculty and staff to carry on Tennessee’s university campuses.
On Feb. 11 MTSU’s Student Government Association voted to formally oppose Holt’s bill with its own piece of counter legislation.
The students’ opposition bill lists numerous concerns with the Tennessee legislation, including the threatening environment it could create for non-carriers on campus, and the lack of necessity for the bill with an active campus police department to ensure student safety. Kenneth Anthony, a sophomore in health care administration at MTSU, proposed the SGA bill, which passed by a 14-12 vote.
“I did tons of research on it, and I honestly don’t feel like faculty and staff having guns will make it a safer campus,” Anthony said. “Texas A&M … decided to allow teachers and staff to have guns, but it didn’t change the rate of crime on campus, and that initially gave me the drive to oppose this bill.”
As a part of MTSU’s SGA bill, the executive board members will compose a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Holt stating their formal opposition.
More recently, Austin Peay’s SGA president, Will Roberts, joined forces with MTSU’s SGA president, Lindsey Pierce, to lobby against Holt and Bell’s bill at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting scheduled for Feb. 23.
Roberts and Pierce didn’t get a chance to speak at the meeting, though, because the bill was rescheduled for March 1. Despite the setback, Roberts said he plans to take alternative means of action against the legislation.
“I feel like adding more guns, especially to a place of higher learning, just interferes with the process of being able to learn in a comfortable environment,” Roberts said. “(I’m) a gun owner and shoot for sport, and it just comes to a place where you have to draw the line on the argument that more guns means more protection.”
Roberts added that while increasing safety on campus is important, he believes that there are ways other make campuses more secure.
“I think investing more in the formalized means of protection through police officers and the security of buildings themselves is a better route than arming our faculty and staff,” he said.
While Austin Peay’s SGA hasn’t formally voted to oppose the campus-carry bill yet, Roberts said they’re in the process of discussing opposition, which would most likely be in the form of a letter.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Board of Regents met at a quarterly board meeting in December where the group decided to oppose any forms of legislation that would allow guns on college campuses.
“Everything we do is viewed through the lens of its impact on student success,” said Monica Greppin-Watts, communications director for the Tennessee Board of Regents. “I think providing our students, our faculty and our staff with a safe environment is very important.”
Greppin-Watts added that the Tennessee Association of Police Chiefs agreed at the board meeting that allowing guns on campus would decrease student safety.
“One of the points that they mentioned is that if there were an incident or shooting on campus, they would not be able to tell who has a gun legally and who is committing a crime,” Greppin-Watts said.
Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the current Tennessee legislation is only the first step toward allowing students and employees to carry on campus.
“One of the strategies of the gun lobby is to slowly loosen the screws of campus gun policy,” Harnisch said. “One of their strategies is that they’ll have a bill to allow guns in cars, or allow state employees to have guns on campus. Then they’ll take a little bit at a time, but ultimately, what they want is to have everybody on campus to be able to carry guns.”
Harnisch said while the AASCU opposes laws that would allow guns on campus, it would at least like governing boards to have the last say on gun policies at their schools.
“We believe that the decision on campus safety policy and guns on campus policy should be made by campus governing bodies in consultation with the university president, students, faculty and staff,” Harnisch said.
He agreed with Greppin-Watts that allowing guns on campus would compromise the learning environment and not make campuses any safer.
“College classrooms are auditoriums and forums for debate, discussion and dissent on controversial issues, and guns have no place in that setting,” Harnisch said.
Currently, Tennessee’s campus-carry bill would not give the Tennessee Board of Regents or its schools the option to restrict carrying if the law is passed.
Proponents for concealed carrying at state colleges and universities, Students for Concealed Carry, criticize Tennessee’s campus-carry bill for not including students who have permits to carry as well.
“If you’re a licensee, you should be able to carry onto a college campus the same as you do at any other unsecured location in the state,” said Michael Newbern, a Smyrna, Tennessee, native who now serves as board member and state director for Students for Concealed Carry in Ohio.
Students for Concealed Carry began in 2007 in Texas in reaction to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 people.
Newbern said the primary benefit to guns being allowed on campuses is for students to be able to defend themselves.
“We’re very clear that concealed carry is not a means for someone to respond to an active shooter situation and seek out the bad guy. It’s a means of self defense,” he said.
According to Newbern, some people argue that state university faculty and staff should be allowed to carry in the case of an active shooter, but Students for Concealed Carry doesn’t believe attacking a shooter should be the focus of allowing people to carry on campuses and isn’t a reason to exclude students from the legislation.
“We don’t differentiate between students, faculty and staff,” Newbern said. “We would like to see states continue to trend in the direction of, ‘If you’re a licensee, you should be able to carry a gun on campus just as you do off campus,’ with no sort of special restrictions and no web of rules that people have to follow.”
Rep. Holt said students were not included in the current legislation because they wanted to see what could be accomplished with university faculty and staff first.
“I know there are other bills out there that do deal with students in addition to employees,” Holt said. He said he expects those bills could be added to Tennessee’s legislation sometime this year.
The current campus-carry bill is waiting to be reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Civil Justice Subcommittee.
Eight other states have passed laws allowing students and employees to carry concealed weapons at state colleges and universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama, Georgia and Florida aren’t far behind and have recently been working toward passing their own campus-carry laws.
This piece is brought to you by Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, launched in January 2015. The Studio M project is made possible through generous grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.Follow Amanda Freuler at @AmandaFreuler