5:30am

Thu November 1, 2012
Politics

To Ban or Not to Ban? The Politics of Guns

As a battleground state, all eyes have been on Colorado during this year’s presidential race, but the outcome of next Tuesday’s election will dictate a lot more than who wins the Oval Office.

It will also have a profound impact on local politics, including the possible reversal of a new court-ordered policy allowing guns on college campuses.

Kirk Siegler reports for KUNC's Morning Edition.

Guns in the Classroom

Professor Susan Kent hasn’t yet had a student bring a concealed weapon into one of her history classes at the University of Colorado in Boulder

But that hasn’t stopped her from imagining just about every scenario of what could happen if or when one of them does.

“This is a room that contains 50-60 students or so,” Kent says, as students file out after one of her lectures. “What if someone sees that concealed weapon and responds to it in alarm, now what we’ve just done in that scenario is completely unsettled the classroom experience.”

Guns change the dynamic, Kent says, especially in a learning environment; say a classroom like this, or a professor’s office that’s meant to be a safe haven for the exchange of ideas. 

That’s why CU faculty members have the discretion to prohibit all sorts of things in class, she says.

“We can control the presence of laptops and cell phones,” Kent says. “But we cannot control the presence of concealed weapons in our classroom and we think that is the most illogical aspect of all of this.”

Court Decision

By all of “this,” Kent is referring to a March ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court that overturned a long-standing Board of Regents policy banning all guns from CU campuses.  The court ruled it was trumped by the state’s newer concealed carry law, passed in 2003.

Attorney Jim Manley, who represented the plaintiffs in the suit, says CU faculty are overly concerned, suggesting their worries might be eased by talking to their colleagues up the road at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“Ask them what it’s been like over the last ten years, has CSU been a wasteland for academic discourse,” Manley says, adding that the school has had no reported problems. 

CSU has allowed concealed carry on their campuses since the state law was passed.  But like CU, CSU leaders did try, albeit unsuccessfully, to ban guns back in 2010.

Calls for a Policy Change

For State Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder), these heated clashes demonstrate why a blanket state law allowing concealed carry permits nearly everywhere doesn’t work.

“The campuses are responsible for the safety of the students, they create the work place for faculty and staff,” Levy says. “They’re an employer and a custodian of students if you will, just like K through 12 and just like a private employer is.”

Levy plans to draft a bill for the next legislative session that would either hand authority back to college campuses to make their own gun policies, or include every university and community college in the state under an existing list of exemptions in the 2003 concealed carry law. 

Whether she goes with that last, more sweeping route will depend on whether her party, the Democrats, regain control of the state house. 

But things may also hinge on the makeup of the Board of Regents itself.

The issue has played front and center in Colorado’s only statewide race this fall, the open, ‘at large’ seat on the CU Board of Regents.

Democrat Stephen Ludwig, who currently holds the seat, spoke to the issue during a recent debate.

“I’ve been pretty unequivocal about my opposition to having concealed carry on any of our college campuses and that continues to be my position,” Ludwig said. “However the law is what the law is.”

Ludwig is seen as being in a tight race with Republican challenger Brian Davidson, who at the same debate said the issue has been decided by the courts, and the Board of Regents shouldn’t get another say.

“I think giving institutional discretion would be a distraction from higher education issues,” he said, adding that the board should be instead focusing on the state funding crisis for higher ed.

Uniform Policy vs. Local Control

Still, like it or not, it appears the issue will be back in front of lawmakers come January, ten years after the state legislature passed the concealed carry law, and much to the chagrin of gun-rights advocates like Jim Manley. 

He says the statewide law eliminates the confusion for gun owners about where they can and cannot legally carry their weapons.

“And in a place like Boulder, especially, it’s so easy to just walk onto campus and not realize that you’re walking on campus, it’s interwoven with the city,” Manley says. “And so to have a different rule for the campus then you have for the rest of Boulder, or the rest of Denver, just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Back on the CU-Boulder campus, Professor Susan Kent isn’t buying that argument.

She argues the situation on college campuses differs greatly from that in downtown Denver or Boulder.

“We have a lot of partying going on in this campus,” Kent says. “We have a lot of immature 21 year olds who may be in a possession to get a permit but as far as I would argue aren’t mature enough to be in a position to carry a weapon.”

Kent, who chairs the university’s history department, is a gun owner herself. But she’s still urging her fellow faculty members to sign onto legislation reinstating a campus ban. 

It’s not yet clear how much traction this effort will gain even on this campus known for its liberal politics.  That’s mainly because it’s not clear how big of an issue concealed weapons even are here – the school estimates literally just a handful of the entire student body even have permits.