'Campus-carry' laws are a growing trend
Backers cite massacres; for foes, education suffers.
Fifth in a series
POCATELLO, Idaho - Derek Sommer carries a concealed handgun almost everywhere he goes these days, including onto the campus of Idaho State University - an illegal act until recently.
Under an Idaho law that took effect July 1, nearly 3,000 Idaho residents with enhanced concealed carry permits - people like Sommer - can bring their guns on campuses. Sommer no longer leaves his gun at home or in his car's locked glove compartment.
Idaho became the seventh state to allow "campus carry" in a movement gaining traction across the country, despite the often strenuous opposition of other students, faculty and campus administrators.
Spurred by recent high-profile campus shootings, grassroots groups like Students for Concealed Carry (SCC) are pushing for the right to carry weapons on campus, sometimes with the backing of larger gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association.
For Sommer, 23, a computerized machining student who founded Idaho State's SCC chapter, carrying his handgun means protection for himself, his wife, McKinley, and their 7-month-old daughter, Andi.
"It makes me angry, it really does," he said. "I don't like the fact that there are places where it's considered OK to tell somebody, 'You don't have the right to protect yourself.' "
For others, like Boise State University student Angel Hernandez, 24, the new law means less focus on learning and more on worrying about who's packing a gun on campus.
"I went to Boise State to get an education. I didn't go to Boise to go to a gun show," he said.
Opponents of campus-carry laws have seen mixed success. Arkansans Against Guns on Campus got lawmakers to exclude students from a law letting faculty and staff bring concealed guns onto campus if their college grants permission. Attempts to start a Colorado referendum to end campus carry there ended in failure.
Groups like SCC, meanwhile, have active chapters in at least 30 states, mobilizing as many as 30,000 students and faculty to support laws and court cases favorable to the cause, said group spokesman Kurt Mueller.
The group occasionally makes local headlines when members gather to wear empty holsters to promote campus carry - from Washington state to Michigan and Florida. It operates with little funding, relying instead on volunteers and social media for recruitment and chapter operations, Mueller said.
"We don't have professional lobbyists," he said. "We don't pay anybody to lobby. People do it for free because it's what they believe in."
A News21 analysis of on-campus shootings found 87 of them, or 60 percent, have happened in the last decade. Campus-carry supporters nationwide said in interviews that the increase in shootings partly influenced their desire to bring concealed guns on campus.
SCC was formed after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Mueller argues that an armed student could have stopped the shooter without waiting for police to arrive.
"The confrontation would have ended a lot sooner," he said. "Lives would have been saved."
Campus-carry supporters point to the legal doctrine of preemption, which says only the state legislature can regulate guns in the state. No other government in the state, such as cities and counties, can make gun rules. Many states exempt K-12 schools and some public buildings from concealed carry of guns.
Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin - and now Idaho - have laws on the books that allow students to conceal weapons on campus.
SCC's focus next year is Texas, Mueller said. As of September, students could store guns in cars on campus. The group plans to have members write and call state lawmakers to demand more places on campus that allow concealed guns.
The law shouldn't block licensed gun owners - including college students - from carrying on campuses, Mueller said. In some places, crossing the street could mean a law-abiding gun owner is now on campus and breaking the law.
"We're not interested in every college student carrying," he said. "There might be a lot of people who might never want to use or bring their firearms. If that's the case, that's cool. We don't think anyone should have to exercise rights they don't want to. But on the other hand, we don't think they get a veto over the rights of others."
Crime research consultant Tom Gabor said he believes letting students possess guns in more places is risky and goes against dozens of public health and criminal justice studies.
People in the 18- to 24-year-old age range are more impulsive and at greater risk for suicide, said Gabor, who taught criminology at the University of Ottawa for 30 years and studied firearms for 20 years.
In Idaho, students and faculty who protested when Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter signed campus carry into law said lawmakers ignored them and listened to lobbyists and Idahoans who don't work and live on campus.
Boise State student body president Bryan Vlok said he faced an uphill battle fighting campus carry. Still determining what the law means for Idaho students, he joked about putting bulletproof vests in the student government budget.
Student leaders organized a rally at the state Capitol, arranged automated phone calls across the state, and met with the governor's staff to say students overwhelmingly fear campus carry.
The new law only applies to holders of enhanced concealed carry permits, not regular permit holders, who require less training and can be 18 to 21 years old. But Vlok believes the requirements to get the enhanced concealed-carry permit are not enough to make someone responsible or accurate.
Ross Perkins, a Boise State associate professor in educational technology, criticized the campus carry movement in an opinion piece for a local newspaper. He recalled witnessing the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech, where he worked and studied for about nine years.
"I hope that it never happens again. But I said that in 2007, and how many incidences can we now count that have happened since then?" he said. "It's stunning."
Supporters of campus carry say the Idaho opposition is a vocal minority led by Boise State administrators. Idaho State Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican and one of the law's sponsors, hopes to amend it to stop the university from exempting the student union building.
"We're talking about a Second Amendment right, a right to protect your life or the life of someone else," Boyle said. "That's why we felt it was important to give someone that ability."
Now that Idaho State student Derek Sommer has that ability, he said he wonders if he could use his weapon should someone attack him.
"In my dream world, we could help these individuals before anything like this ever happens," Sommer said. "Would I ever want to draw a gun on somebody? I would hate that. I don't know if I could live with myself if I ended up taking somebody's life, especially if it was somebody troubled."
SUNDAY: Women increasingly are turning to using weapons.