Constitution Daily

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A lesson in moderation: Should guns be allowed on campus?

April 27, 2011 by Dr. Steve Frank


This story originally appeared in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

It can't be the water. So it must be the sun's glare on the parched landscape that helps Arizona illuminate our country's most contentious debates - immigration, health care, abortion, and more.

Gov. Jan Brewer | Photo: Wikipedia

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's veto last week of the so-called birther bill overshadowed her rejection of another piece of hot-button legislation: a bill to allow gun owners to carry their weapons on public university and community-college campuses.

Like the bill requiring presidential candidates to prove their nationality, which was motivated by conspiracy theories about President Obama's place of birth, the campus gun bill was sharply divisive. It cast a clear light on fundamental differences between advocates of gun rights and gun control.

However unintentionally, its veto by the Republican governor and tea-party favorite highlighted something else equally fundamental: In politics - and even in a political gunfight - there are always opportunities for moderation.

Pushing boundaries

Under current law, Arizona's public colleges and universities are each allowed to decide whether to allow guns on campus. None of them do.

The failed bill would have lifted those bans to permit the carrying of guns within public rights of way on campuses. That restriction to campus streets and byways was something of a compromise; an earlier version of the legislation would have permitted the carrying of concealed weapons in campus buildings, including classrooms.

This bill cast a clear light on fundamental differences between advocates of gun rights and gun control
Legislation similar to the Arizona bill has been pushed by gun-rights advocates, and opposed by gun-control proponents, in many states since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. So far, 45 attempts to lift campus gun bans have failed in 24 states.

The argument turns on whether you think arming students and professors will make campuses safer, or turn the groves of academe into brainier versions of the Wild West. Gun-rights advocates argue that people should be able to arm themselves against killers on campus, and elsewhere. Their opponents say the presence of weapons would lead to more violence.

Frankly, the jury is out on this question. In Utah, where the law was changed to permit guns on campus in 2006, there has been no increase in campus gun violence. Gun-rights advocates say that shows fears of mayhem are unfounded.

On the other hand, colleges and universities tend to be gun-free zones, and homicides on campus are rare, typically numbering fewer than 20 a year. Gun-control proponents say that shows there's no need for guns on campus.

Under federal law, anyone under 21 - which includes most college freshmen, sophomores, and juniors - cannot buy handguns from a dealer. So lifting gun bans on campus would facilitate the arming mostly of seniors, graduate students, and professors. And in most states, they would also need a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The practical impact of lifting campus gun bans, then, might be slight.

But the issue isn't really about whether professors packing heat would deter mass murder. It's about whether there should be any limits on the right to bear arms.

As Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, observed in the New York Times last week, "The true motivation is to remove the stigma attached to guns. Many in the gun-rights movement believe there should be no gun-free zones and seek to make the public possession of firearms a matter of course." Along those lines, a bill that would allow guns to be carried in Maine's State House was narrowly endorsed by a legislative committee in Augusta last week.

Drawing lines

Gov. Brewer said in her veto message that the Arizona bill was "poorly written," in that it didn't define public rights of way and could have been interpreted to apply to K-12 schools, not just universities and colleges. Sadly, school shootings can occur not only at universities, but also at K-12 schools - where Brewer drew a line. And therein lies a principle of moderation for those who wish to seize it.

In landmark decisions in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to own a gun for personal use, and the court specifically stated that individuals have a right to keep a loaded gun at home for self-defense.

But no right is unlimited, and where to draw the limits is exactly the question highlighted in Arizona. Even in the Wild West, gunslingers checked their weapons at the saloon door. Should they also check them at the schoolhouse door?


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