Kansas universities lack firm plan for concealed guns on campus, making some anxious

Board of Regents, KU say discussions underway; fearful faculty and students talking, too

The calendar is creeping toward the date when, under Kansas law, people will be able to carry concealed guns into buildings on college campuses, even without a concealed carry permit.

It’s become increasingly clear that adding security measures to block guns from all entries into all buildings is not financially or logistically feasible. Kansas University’s Lawrence campus alone has 237 buildings, and statewide there are 864, according to the Board of Regents’ most recent facilities inventory.

What’s still very unclear is how KU and other schools will implement the change when it becomes effective July 1, 2017. And, at least at KU, that has some faculty and students worried.

“A significant concern is, of course, the effect an armed classroom will have on the open expression of ideas from all sides of a discussion,” said Michael Williams, incoming KU University Senate president and an associate professor of journalism. “Some faculty and students have expressed an unwillingness to be part of a class environment where there may be guns and have stated clearly this will challenge their decision to work or study at KU.”

No guns signs are posted on a side door of KU's Art and Design Building, as well as other buildings on campus, pictured in May 2015.

Williams said he personally is even more concerned about the possibility of accidental shootings in areas where multiple students live, or of increased potential for suicide among troubled students finding access to guns easier than before.

Laws allow guns

A series of new laws and other developments is knocking down barriers to having concealed guns in Kansas college classrooms.

Gov. Sam Brownback signed a law in 2012 expanding where people with concealed carry permits can take their guns. The law allows guns in public buildings that don’t have certain security measures, such as metal detectors and trained guards, but universities and many other public entities got a four-year exemption.

After July 1, 2017, campus buildings must allow concealed carry unless the building has adequate security.

A new twist: In April, Brownback signed a law, which will become effective July 1, that says Kansans no longer need concealed-carry permits, and thus the training required to get them, to carry concealed guns.

In October 2013, in reaction to the first law change, the Kansas Board of Regents ordered each college to prepare building-by-building assessments of the impact of allowing concealed carry of guns on their campuses.

Those are now complete but not available to the public for safety reasons, said Breeze Richardson, director of communications for the Regents.

The Regents Governance Committee has received reports from all schools, with KU presenting its report in January, according to a Regents agenda. Committee discussions were held in private, also for safety reasons, Richardson said.

“Safety on our campuses is always a top priority, and we will continue studying this issue throughout the period of exemption,” Richardson said.

‘No way’

One item that emerged from those conversations, Board of Regents chairman Kenny Wilk said, is that universities won’t be installing security at all of their 800-plus buildings.

“There is no way,” Wilk said. “It would be cost prohibitive for us to try to put the security that’s required in place in each building. That’s not practical for us, so we’re not going to do it.”

Installing security at selective buildings is a possibility, Wilk said.

Some buildings, such as dorms where students live or stadiums that draw large crowds, already have some security in place at entrances, Wilk said, which could make them easier to more tightly secure.

However, he said, the Regents will not impose “cookie cutter” mandates on universities.

He said board members came away from committee meetings with a “comfort level” that universities were adequately working to develop plans, and noted that there are still two years until the exemption runs out.

However, Wilk said the new law enabling concealed carry with no permit is a concern and that governance committee members need to “reanalyze” in light of it.

“In my personal view, that’s much different,” Wilk said. “The change is substantial.”

Wilk said he understands campus communities are afraid.

He said the regents and universities must balance respect for legislation and the legislative process with campus safety.

“We understand the anxiety,” he said. “We understand the concerns of the people that are there on the campuses every day… It is something we take very seriously, and we’re going to keep working diligently at it. I’m glad that we’ve got time.”

KU would not answer specific questions from the Journal-World about what the university is doing to prepare for concealed carry coming to campus.

“KU and the other regents institutions continue to consider what steps need to be taken for implementation of the law,” university spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said in an email response.

University Senate initiative

Meanwhile, university faculty, staff and students are starting some initiatives of their own.

This week, the University Senate Executive Committee plans to form an ad hoc committee to explore options and recommend actions, Williams said.

It would be nice if they could persuade legislators in the 2016 session to change the law or extend exemptions, Williams said.

Nice, but unlikely.

“As there is little optimism such changes are likely, we will need to be creative in how will establish protocols for dealing with guns on our campus,” Williams said. “I consider this a major issue for consideration by the senate during my term and hope to work with the provost and university administrators at KU and at the other regents schools to find solutions to this problem.”

Williams’ ideas include threat-abatement training for faculty and staff who could find themselves confronted by an armed person, protocols for determining true threats as opposed to assuming any gun is a threat and calling 911, and establishing “safe zones” around campus that could be monitored or maintained as gun-free zones “where diverse opinions and voices can be heard without the chilling effect of weapons being present.”

The rationale behind the law

The concealed carry legislation that will ultimately allow guns on campus cleared the Legislature in 2013 with four-fifths majorities in both chambers. Legislators approved the gun-rights bills in the wake of discussions among federal officials about new gun-control measures following a mass, fatal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Lawmakers enacted a law allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in 2005 over then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ veto, and the state began issuing permits in 2006. Afterward, some legislators such as Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican and a leading advocate for gun-rights measures, were frustrated because they believed the Regents and local officials had been too quick to prohibit guns in their buildings, using the power granted to them to bar weapons simply by posting notices at entrances.

“When a gun is in a school and harm is meant, there is only one thing that is going to stop that, and that is another gun,” Knox said in 2013.

Referring to the shootings at Sandy Hook and the unarmed teachers who were killed while trying to protect students, Knox said, “We’ve got to get our heads out of the sand. There are guns and there are people with evil intent and law enforcement is not always the first responder. The first responders at Sandy Hook are all dead.”

Campus conversations

Allan Hanson, professor of anthropology and the faculty sponsor of a small student club called Keep Guns Off Campus, said he’s been surprised by how many KU community members he encounters who have not heard about concealed carry coming to campus.

“I think this is an unbelievably crazy situation that we’re facing,” Hanson said. “I think we’re going to end up with guns on campus two years from now, I do. But I hope there will be an uprising against it that will be strong enough that we can get that law repealed.”

Hanson said he is “hopeful” but not necessarily “optimistic” that lawmakers could be convinced to change the law.

“It would take quite a housecleaning at the next election,” he said.

Keep Guns Off Campus president Michael Hernandez, who just formed the currently seven-ish-member group this spring, is going to give it a go.

“My primary goal is trying to raise awareness with students that when they don’t vote, this is the kind of stuff that happens,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said club members have done a tabling event — setting up a table on campus and talking with passersby — and want to do more.

He said he’s heard some students say that allowing concealed carry is a good thing because a person with a gun could thwart a mass shooter.

Hernandez said he’s less worried about mass shootings than the more everyday type of gun violence, where arguments escalate out of control and instead of dissipating them sans weapons, someone ends up shot.

Hernandez said even he doesn’t think it’s feasible to secure every building. His club’s count at Wescoe Hall alone turned up more than 20 entrances, he said. Nor would students want to go through airport-like security just to get to class every day, he said.

“It’s going to really change the campus environment,” he said.

One day in November 2013, a handful of members from another small student club, the KU Chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, wore empty gun holsters on campus in support of allowing concealed carry.

At the time, the protest organizer was not an enrolled KU student. The Journal-World’s attempt to reach several current members last week was unsuccessful.

Art Hall, School of Business lecturer and executive director of the school’s Center for Applied Economics, has been the club’s faculty sponsor for several years, he said.

However, Hall said, the student group has been loosely organized, not highly active and views on campus concealed carry weren’t necessarily shared by all members. Hall said he was unaware of plans for any events regarding the issue of concealed carry on campus.

Guns on campus nationwide

20 states ban carrying concealed weapons on college campuses

23 states allow each college or university to decide whether to ban concealed carry

7 states have laws allowing the carry, now or in the future, as is the case in Kansas, of concealed weapons on campus: Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures website