By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
Remembrances of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, which claimed the lives of 33 people, still provoke frustration, sadness and anger.
"If only I had been armed," readers of those accounts may be tempted to fantasize, "If only I had had a gun and could have stopped that sick young man before he killed one more person."
Who wouldn't go there? Those may not be pretty sentiments but they are perfectly natural.
So severe has been the national guilt over Virginia Tech since April 16, 2007, that at least 17 state legislatures have reacted by either introducing or arguing in favor of bills that would make it legal for students, staff and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus.
It's a loaded strategy, fraught with danger, according to Michael Liebowitz, former president of the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc. and the director of insurance and risk management for New York University.
"We're an urban campus and if I need somebody who has got a weapon, I'm calling the New York City Police Department," Liebowitz said. NYU, a private university, wouldn't automatically fall under the jurisdiction of concealed weapons laws if they were ever passed by Albany lawmakers.
Liebowitz and NYU, of course, hardly speak for the rest of the country. Dozens of state-run universities are located in small towns with rural constituencies that are far more receptive to gun ownership than urban cities in the East with higher rates of gun crime.
There are 15 "right-to-carry" (concealed weapons) states, including Alaska, Pennsylvania, Montana and West Virginia which leave the decision to permit concealed carry to individual colleges or universities, according to the University Risk Management and Insurance Association. Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Wyoming belong to a group of 24 states that forbid carrying a concealed weapon on campus.
Christie Wahlert, a spokeswoman for the Bloomington, Ind.-based University Risk Management and Insurance Association, said in June that the organization has yet to develop a position statement on the issue of concealed carry.
Only one state, Utah, has passed a statewide law allowing students and faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus. In May, the state Senate in Texas passed a bill that would have legalized carrying a concealed weapon on public campuses. A house vote on that notion was postponed due to a debate on another hot topic, mandatory voter photo identification.
Texas lawmaker Jeff Wentworth, the San Antonio Republican state senator who co-authored the concealed carry bill, said he plans to bring it back to the floor in 2011.
"When a bill gets as close as this one did with its passing the Senate and having about half of the House of Representatives as co-authors, yes it would be my intention and I suspect (co-sponsor) Rep. Joe Driver's as well to bring it back next session," Wentworth told Risk & Insurance® shortly after the bill's demise on June 1.
The Lone Star State has its reasons for wanting to allow students and faculty to carry concealed weapons. Long before the shootings at Virginia Tech, it was a Texas college campus that bore the worst memories of a higher education shooting.
In August 1966, Charles Whitman, a disturbed former Marine armed with a locker full of rifles and ammunition, climbed the tower at the University of Texas at Austin. He picked his targets from the campus grounds and surrounding community, killing 14 and wounding 32 before he was shot down by police.
More recently, Steven Kazmierczak, a graduate student who had stopped taking his antidepressants, killed six and wounded 18 at Northern Illinois University on Feb. 14, 2008.
AN IMMORTAL DEBATE
For the moment, the debate over concealed weapons is pitting risk managers, reticent about allowing students and teachers to carry concealed weapons, against state lawmakers who, loyal to constituents, favor allowing students and staff to carry concealed guns.
Joe Dulin, risk manager for Utah State University, said there's no doubt in his mind about how residents of his state feel about protecting their Second Amendment rights, even within the confines of academia, whose role it is to encourage debate and influence through persuasion rather than resort to violence.
"The right to own and bear arms and use those weapons to defend yourself is seen as an unbridgeable right in this state by the majority of the population," Dulin said, even though he's not sure that allowing concealed weapons on campus makes people any safer.
"I do empathize with the idea that people should have the right to defend themselves but my concern is I would hate to see their defending themselves cause them to be mistaken for the bad guy," said Dulin.
In the fight over carrying concealed weapons, there are neither winners nor rosy compromises. "There is no happy outcome with this whole thing," added Dulin. "No matter what side you take there is going to be somebody who hates you."
Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, which filed a court brief opposing the carrying of hidden weapons in Utah, said the legalization of concealed weapons on campus will only make university shooting situations more confusing.
Security personnel arriving on the scene might not be able to distinguish between a would-be assailant and a would-be victim. Guns in the hands of students or faculty not thoroughly trained to use them pose a danger to the entire campus, she noted. The movement to allow concealed weapons on campus is a "horrifying thing," she said.
"It is no surprise that violent shootings on campus spawn interest in self defense," adds Leta Finch, the Burlington, Vt.-based executive director of the higher education practice of the insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. and a former manager at the University of Vermont in Burlington, a private university.
Finch, a Risk & Insurance® Power BrokerTM, fears the loss of sound, reasoned judgment in a world where students and are allowed to roam with weapons nestled under their sport coats. "The concern with concealed handguns is that not all licensed gun owners use good judgment on when and whom they choose to use their weapons," Finch said.
The debate over the value of allowing concealed weapons on campus is deeply polarized, and the debate hasn't changed, according to Constance Neary, a vice president of risk management with United Educators Inc., the Chevy Chase, Md.-based educational insurer.
Maybe so, but within all that polarity, university risk managers need to find common ground to keep students, staff and faculty safe. It is, after all, the responsibility of the risk manager to avoid campus bloodshed and the attendant liability claims filed against an institution in the case of an outburst of violence.
Of the 1,200 educational facilities that Neary's company insures, about 800 are colleges and universities. Over the last five years, Neary said her company has seen between 15 and 20 claims per year that involve guns.
Half of those claims involve injury or death. The other half involve complaints of civil rights violations over the removal or suspension of someone caught carrying a firearm and who may have been carrying it legally. "I mean you are really seeing both sides of the debate carried out in the claims experience as well," Neary said.
She advises risk manager to know the law and to know it down cold. "Whatever it is, you need to comply with the law because there is going to be a complaint no matter which way you move." The heat of that complaint, at least in the realm of civil rights, is going to vary greatly depending on the state in which the complaint is filed.
Reviewing university policies and a dedication to the formation of threat assessment teams on campus are also good ways to mitigate the risk of more students and faculty carrying concealed weapons, should a state legislature pass weapon concealment laws.
"Look at your policies and if you haven't established a policy concerning the possession of firearms you should think that through," said Neary. "The other area where it is, I think, critical to think long and hard at as an institution is establishing a threat assessment team that is specifically trained to both receive and investigate reports of violence on campus."
Recommended by the U.S. Department of Education, threat assessment teams are interdisciplinary groups of faculty and administrators that work to identify, intercept and manage students who could present a danger to others or themselves.
The point is to have an intervention mechanism that can deal with violence-prone students or faculty when initial reports of violence come in to campus security. In many cases, students who are prone to carry a gun don't fit the stereotype of a brooding loner.
Gun-toting students were more likely to be a white male who engaged in binge drinking and unprotected sex while drunk, according to a 2002 study of guns on campus by Matthew Miller, David Hemenway and Henry Wechsler of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at that school's Department of Health Policy and Management.
The study, which surveyed 10,000 undergraduate students at 119 four-year colleges also found that roughly 4.3 percent of students had a working weapon at school.
The profile of those who carried a gun for protection was much different. That person was more likely to be an African-American female from an urban environment who had been threatened at least once.
Miller, an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Injury Prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, said lawmakers and campus risk managers should know how many times students who have been carrying guns have used them in self-defense.
He said he'd also like to know how many altercations have escalated to death or injury that in the absence of guns wouldn't have.
August 1, 2009
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