Va. Tech Tragedy Revives Gun Controversy
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Updated 1:05 p.m. EDT, Tuesday
The rampage at Virginia Tech that left at least 33 people dead Monday touched a nerve over gun control on college campuses, including among Virginia lawmakers who had recently sparred over a firearms ban at the Blacksburg, Va., campus.
The most recent legislative debate in Virginia, one of 48 states that issue permits allowing citizens to carry concealed firearms, arose after Virginia Tech disciplined an unnamed student who brought a firearm to class in 2005.
State Del. Mark Cole (R) this spring failed to push through a measure that would have let students with concealed-carry permits bring firearms on campus, trumping the school's policy prohibiting them. The legislation languished in a subcommittee after a hearing. A similar measure failed last year.
The same issue came up this year in Utah, too, with the opposite result. The University of Utah gave up its struggle to keep its gun restrictions. A new law signed last month by Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) allows students to request roommates who don't have a concealed-carry permit. Students 21 or older can bring firearms to campus if they have permits.
Authorities on Tuesday identified the assailant as Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech student from South Korea, but it's unknown whether he was permitted to own and carry a firearm. But what quickly became clear was that the shooting wouldn't settle the policy issue of whether to ban guns on campus, especially in states that allow citizens to carry concealed firearms.
"We had gun control at the school, and we had 33 people killed. Was that not enough? Do we need to kill more before people realize gun control doesn't work?" said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights advocacy group that backed legislation to rescind Virginia Tech's gun ban.
Virginia state Del. Todd Gilbert (R), who attempted to override Virginia Tech's gun ban last year, said Monday: "Anybody who's going to go on a murder spree and then kill himself is not going to be deterred by a law or regulation. He's only going to be deterred by the end of another gun."
In the past, Virginia Tech officials defended their gun ban as a way to promote an academic environment free of fear. They noted that other legal items, such as candles, are also prohibited in campus dormitories.
Virginia's laws are unclear on whether universities have the authority to regulate guns on campus. Law enforcement groups pushed for a law to explicitly give colleges that power after three people were shot dead in 2002 at Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Va., but those efforts failed. Representatives for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the state's Fraternal Order of Police could not be reached for comment Monday.
Utah 's new law comes after a six-year fight between the university and legislators championing gun rights. The school fought to keep its gun ban on the books by heading to court, but lawmakers thwarted the move by passing a law in 2004 specifically curtailing the university's authority to restrict guns on campus.
The Utah Supreme Court ruled last September that the university did not have the constitutional authority to sidestep the 2004 law. The school dropped a federal lawsuit over the restrictions when Huntsman signed the subsequent bill in March.
All but two states - Illinois and Wisconsin - allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons.
But 38 states ban firearms on school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, 16 explicitly prohibit concealed weapons on college campuses: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming.
Some states that allow concealed weapons with permits let universities set their own policies. Nebraska 's concealed-gun law, which took effect this year, bans hidden firearms on school grounds, but the state attorney general issued an opinion that colleges and universities don't count as schools. So college campuses, like private businesses that want to keep out firearms, must post conspicuous signs banning guns. University of Nebraska spokeswoman Kelly Bartling said the school has signs bearing a gun with a slash through it in all its parking lots.
A 2003 survey by the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, showed that 82 of 150 of the biggest universities in the country ban all firearms on campus. Another 25 required firearms to be stored at a special facility, 27 allowed guns only for authorized uses (such as military programs) and 22 universities required campus approval for firearms.
Virginia Tech bars students and most employees from bringing firearms or weapons on campus. Guns and other weapons may be stored at the campus police station to be checked out for off-campus use.