Educators and other full-time staffers at Tennessee’s public state universities and colleges will soon be able to carry handguns on campus after Governor Bill Haslam allowed a bill to become law on Monday without his signature.
The bill that the Republican governor allowed to become law had little opposition in both houses, easily passing 69-24 in the House and 28-5 in the Senate last month. The law will go into effect on July 1.
The law, which affects 50 state institutions, was opposed by both the State Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system.
Gun control on college campuses is a growing focus in the national debate over access to guns.
Including Tennessee, 10 states now allow guns on campus, although the Tennessee and Arkansas laws allow only faculty and staff to carry handguns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks policies in all 50 states.
In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, is expected on Tuesday to either sign or veto a measure that would allow licensed gun owners ages 21 and over to carry concealed handguns on the campuses of public colleges and universities in that state.
On Aug. 1, 2016, a so-called campus carry law takes effect in Texas, allowing people 21 and older with a concealed handgun license to carry handguns in classrooms and buildings throughout the University of Texas system.
In Tennessee, anyone carrying a gun under the new law must have a permit and notify local police or campus security, whichever has responsibility for law enforcement on campus. Students are not allowed to carry handguns on campus.
The law does not allow handguns to be carried into arenas and stadiums during school-sponsored events, and guns are barred in meetings related to disciplinary or tenure matters.
Haslam had said he did not believe the state should get involved in such local matters, but chose not to veto the bill.
“Although SB 2376 does not go as far as I would like in retaining campus control, the final version of the bill included input from higher education and was shaped to accommodate some of their concerns,” he said in a Monday statement.
Proponents said the bill will lead to greater safety on campuses. Opponents voiced concern about the safety of students, faculty and visitors on campus.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)
At 8 a.m. Monday, police at the University of Tennessee will start registering employees who want to carry guns on the Knoxville campus, signaling the start of a new era for public schools across the state.
A law opening college campuses to guns goes into effect July 1. Institutions, working alongside law enforcement, have scrambled to rewrite policies, develop new programs and work through hypothetical hiccups to meet the deadline.
Under the law, full-time employees — including professors and staff members — with the necessary permits can carry concealed handguns with them on campus. But anyone who wants to carry will have to register with campus or local law enforcement first.
“I really have no idea what response we’re going to get,” said Troy Lane, chief of police at UT Knoxville. “I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we have very few people, but I can’t say I’d be real surprised if we have a lot of folks show up.”
Colleges and universities across the state have had to fast-track development of the new policies and paperwork surrounding the law in a matter of weeks. Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the legislation to become law without his signature in May.
Challenges at smaller schools
Navigating the new intricacies of the law and constructing new policies have been especially daunting for the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 technical colleges, where administrative resources pale in comparison to state universities. Mary Moody, the Board of Regents’ general counsel, told a group of board members the process has been “very awkward.”
Most community and technical colleges do not have their own police departments, which means those schools will need to coordinate with local law enforcement to keep track of who is allowed to carry a gun on campus.
And the skeletal staffing at some technical college sites will test the limits of the law’s confidentiality requirements, which allow administrators on campus to track who’s carrying a gun as long as they don’t keep track of those who report directly to them. The problem, Moody said, is that at some technical colleges, administrators might count every employee there as a direct report.
“It’s making it very difficult to implement the registration process on many of our campuses,” Moody said.
The law authorizes, but does not require, training sessions for employees who decide to carry guns on campus. Police at UT Knoxville already have scheduled a series of optional training sessions, but similar offerings would be all but impossible at most community and technical college campuses.
“Many of our schools do not have the resources,” Moody said. “They’re going to be taxed to the limit just to monitor all of this.”
The UT system and universities in the Board of Regents system — including Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State and Austin Peay State universities — are each developing their own policies.
The challenge seems less pronounced at the universities, according to interviews with several officials. Buddy Peaster, chief of police at MTSU, said he doubted the law would be burdensome for his department, which will keep track of MTSU employees who decide to carry guns.
Peaster said his department would start taking registrations from employees later this month. He expected a small fraction of the more than 2,000 eligible employees at MTSU to take advantage of the law.
“I don’t see hundreds and hundreds of people here wanting to carry on campus,” he said. “I was not really in favor of this law, but I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world because we have it.”
Campus law enforcement officers will need to adjust their training surrounding a mass shooting response to account for the reality of more people legally carrying guns on campus, said Roane State Community College Police Chief Tom Stufano.
“Our biggest challenge with this is not necessarily having the guns on the campus,” he said. “People having guns is not the issue, it’s when they use the guns that’s the issue.”
Stufano said his department will encourage employees who are carrying guns to use their weapons as a “last, last, last resort” in the event of an active shooter, a sentiment other law enforcement officials shared. He said that police officers are still the best options to respond to an active shooter because of their extensive training.
Across the state, about 27,000 full-time college employees will be eligible to carry guns when the law goes into effect, according to a January estimate by the UT system and the Board of Regents.
College officials voiced strong opposition to the law as it worked its way through the General Assembly earlier this year, warning that putting more guns on campus could lead to more accidental shootings or might hamper law enforcement’s response to an active shooter. But few seemed surprised when it passed by wide margins in both chambers.
Instead, they seemed resigned to the fact that firearms would ultimately become a fixture on their campuses. They worked together with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police to secure a change to the bill that put liability on the permit holder rather than the college in the event of an accidental discharge. Another change allowed law enforcement to keep track of the employees who opt to bring their guns on campus.
In a letter explaining why he allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature, Haslam cited those amendments, which made the law more palatable to college leaders and law enforcement.
An ongoing trend
Tennessee’s General Assembly has worked for several years to expand gun rights and cut the number of places where people can’t carry their weapons. Proponents of those efforts say that “good guys” with guns could prevent or stop shooting deaths on campus.
Mass shootings, like the one that killed 49 people in Orlando this month, tend to strengthen resolve on either side of the debate.
In 2013, in the shadow of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Tennessee lawmakers passed the so-called “guns-in-trunks” bill, which allowed gun owners to keep their guns locked in their cars anywhere, including university parking lots. And in 2015, lawmakers passed a law that allowed people to carry guns in parks.
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who sponsored the college employee gun law, said he was considering the issue following a mass shooting last October that left 10 dead at an Oregon community college.
Several other states have taken similar steps to expand gun rights in recent years. The National Conference of State Legislatures began tracking efforts to allow guns on campuses five years ago after flagging the trend.
Eight states allow people to carry firearms on public college campuses, according to a tally kept by the conference. Tennessee and Arkansas, which aren’t included in that tally, have laws allowing only employees to carry.
Suzanne Hultin, a senior policy specialist for the conference, said about a dozen states a year take steps to expand gun access to college campuses. Generally, one or two of them succeed each year, and she doesn’t expect that to change — at least in conservative states like Tennessee.
“It’s been pretty consistent,” she said. “I imagine the next couple years will remain along the same trend lines we’ve seen.”
The trend probably was set into motion by decades of victories for the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, according to Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.”
“The NRA needs new battles to fight,” Winkler said. “It’s kind of left to argue for guns in the few places where they weren’t allowed: colleges, restaurants and bars,” parks and other places.
“These are areas where it was thought to be acceptable for there to be restrictions on guns for decades,” Winkler said.
State Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, who sponsored the law in the House, has indicated he is ready to push further against the remaining restrictions on guns on campus. He told The Tennessean earlier this year the “important next step” is to allow students to go armed on campus as well.
“My intention is to eliminate all gun-free zones, whether it’s the legislature or a college campus,” Holt said.
While Peaster, the MTSU chief, acknowledged that students might one day wind up with the right to carry guns on campus, he cautioned that would “complicate things from a number of angles.” He added that safety on campus is more complicated than people on either side of the gun debate might think.
“People on both sides of this issue are looking for an absolute guarantee of safety,” he said. “I don’t think people’s safety and security in life is going to be found by carrying or not carrying.”