Some colleges bar even talking about right to bear arms, gun advocates say

By June 4, 2009

The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to free speech. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to possess firearms. Now the first two clauses in the Bill of Rights have come together in an ongoing debate over the right of college students to advocate that they be allowed to carry guns on campus.

The bloody massacres at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, as well as smaller campus shootings across the country in the last decade, have fomented a lively debate over whether citizens should be allowed to carry concealed weapons to defend themselves on campus.

But that debate has hit a wall of resistance from school officials in some places, bringing into focus the dual issues of gun rights and free speech.

Many gun-rights advocates are arguing that college campuses, which are supposed to be open to diversity of thought, provocative dialogue, politics and protest, are hardly bastions of free speech when it comes to discussing firearms.

"The fact is, the topic is so explosive," said Robert Shibley, spokesman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which tracks discriminatory practices against students involved in conservative issues on campus. They’ve been dealing with "more and more" complaints about efforts to "squelch gun speech," he said.

The latest flareup involves Christine Brashier, who says officials at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) violated her First Amendment right to free speech when they stopped her from posting and distributing fliers advocating for concealed carry on campus, and for a new chapter of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) at the college. The group has about a dozen chapters on other Pennsylvania campuses, Shibley said.

"I genuinely wanted to start discussion on the topic," Brasier told FOXNews.com this week. " I am not such an avid gun owner as much of the news has made me out to be – I simply believe in liberty and that college is the place for a debate about important issues such as this one."

Brashier, 24, who is a freshman at the school, said she worked for the last three years in a law office, and before that, as an assistant manager at a convenience store, which was robbed at gunpoint twice while she worked there.

She is licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Pennsylvania, but school policy prevents her from carrying it on campus. Most states allow schools to set their own policy on concealed carry laws.

Brashier maintains she was hauled into a meeting with the dean, who told her "that the club would never be approved, that the school did not wish to discuss the topic, and to cease speaking about it as well as destroy the literature."

The school acknowledged Monday that it told Brashier to stop leafletting – not because it didn’t like what she had to say, but because school policy requires that any "mass distribution" of materials must get clearance from school officials ahead of time. In addition, officials said, her pamphlets implied that Students for Concealed Carry was already a sanctioned student organization on campus.

"Review of posted materials on campus is required precisely to avoid this situation and similar liability concerns, and flyers from other groups have been revised to address these matters before being approved without incident," the official statement read. David Hoovler, a school spokesman, told FOXNews.com that Brashier was a good student and that the incident had nothing to do with the issue of firearms on campus.

"She is welcome to follow the proper procedures, to form the organization and hold their activities," Hoovler said. Regarding Brashier’s charges that she was told the SCCC chapter would never be accepted by the school, Hoovler said he could not say with any authority what exactly was said in the meeting, but that Brashier is certainly welcome to form the chapter "if she follows all the proper steps." The student government has the authority for approving campus organizations, he said, and it’s all about procedure.

But gun rights advocates are wary. Since the Virginia Tech murders in 2007, in which 32 people were gunned down by a student with a history of mental illness, a line has been drawn between those who feel that licensed gun owners should be allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, and those who believe prevention and tougher gun laws are the best response to a campus gunman.

Shibley says both sides deserve to have their say.

"Ever since Virginia Tech … colleges have become skittish about even talking about guns on campus out of presumably some fear that it would somehow lead to violence," he said.

"That’s an unreasonable stand to take. When the issue is whether or not people should carry concealed weapons on campus, there is no more appropriate place to discuss it than on campus."

In March, Central Connecticut State University student John Wahlberg and two classmates gave a presentation for their communications class on whether the death toll at Virginia Tech might have been smaller if faculty and students had been allowed to carry guns. That night, Wahlberg says, he was called into the campus police department, which already had a list of his registered guns, which were locked away off-campus.

Wahlberg’s professor had reported him to security out of "safety" concerns, according to The Recorder, the campus newspaper.

The incident has seemingly given the issue a boost, as CCSU students advocating concealed carry were protesting on campus in April, carrying around empty holsters to make their point.

But just a year earlier, students planning a similar protest at Tarrant County College in Texas were told to leave their empty holsters at home and were restricted to demonstrating in a "free speech zone" on campus.

"When university bureaucrats and professors censor student speech or punish students for their ideas, the censors are admitting, in effect, their own inability to address the pros and cons of that idea, and they are attacking everything the university stands for," said Dave Kopel, a policy expert on the Second Amendment for the Independence Institute in Colorado.

But Kopel said the majority of colleges and universities "have handled the debate properly, by not doing anything at all," when a concealed carry movement sparks up on campus. "It’s only a minority of abhorrent people who not only have open hostility to the Second Amendment, but to the First Amendment too."

Opponents of concealed carry say there are relatively few students who are behind the movement. "What we’re hearing is that they do not want guns on campus," said Chad Ramsey, spokesman for the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocate in Washington. "There is a smattering of Second Amendment activists out there. But I don’t think there is a major grassroots effort among students – I think most students have been advocating the other side of the fence."

Certainly, campus officials and campus law enforcement are against the idea of more guns in private citizens’ hands at school. Lisa Sprague, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said the group put out a position statement after the Virginia Tech incident against concealed carry on campus. They say there is "no credible evidence to suggest that the presence of students carrying concealed weapons would reduce violence on our college campuses," and could even serve to create more dangerous situations.

"Actually, what I’ve found is just a pocket of interest for this across the United States," Sprague told FOXNews.com.

Kopel responded that it was no surprise that campus police would underplay the importance of the debate and come out strongly against concealed carry. "As far as they’re concerned, nobody is ever capable of owning a gun for self-defense unless they’re an employee for a security operation," he said.

There has been a flurry of bills at the state level since 2007 advocating that people who are licensed to carry concealed firearms be permitted to carry their weapons on state campuses, but so far no major legislation has been signed into law. A bill passed the Texas state senate in May, but it died when the legislative session expired for the year on Monday. There are bills pending in seven other states, according to the SCCC website.

"This is an issue," said Kopel, pointing out that SCCC has chapters all over the country. "This is not going away."

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Schools: Community College of Allegheny County