JUNEAU — For some, concealed weapons are a symbol of protection against the outside world. For others, they are a reminder of the danger contained within it.
A Senate Education Committee heard testimony from both sides on Tuesday as it considered legislation that could allow concealed weapons on University of Alaska campuses.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said that the ban on carrying firearms on campus set out by the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents conflicts with Alaskans’ constitutional right to bear arms. He referenced attacks at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and other mass shootings saying that gun-free zones attract violence.
“I’m offering it because of a disturbing increase in the United States in mass shootings,” he said. “The gun laws that exist in certain places that are, I guess we could call them gun-free zones, are making many of our public institutions soft targets for people with serious mental problems and jihadists.”
University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said the university system believed the bill would prevent the university from managing situations on campuses where it is responsible for the safety of students, faculty and staff.
“We recognize that this issue is not whether or not one is for or against guns in the broader community,” Johnsen said. But, the university has to intervene daily in conflicts and needs to be able to manage them safely.
The University of Alaska system submitted a position paper opposing the bill in its current form. It said it needs to be able to regulate concealed weapons in certain situations as it is responsible for the safety and well-being of students and employees on its property.
The university system asked for five amendments to the bill including two that would permit it to regulate concealed weapons in areas like the residence halls or in situations when students or employees could pose a risk to themselves or others.
According to the position paper, more than half of the students living in dorms are younger than 21. Allowing weapons in the dorms could result in situations where students or guests have access to guns when they shouldn’t, the paper said. The minimum legal age for a concealed carry permit is 21.
Kelly said he was willing to work with the university to compromise on the language of the bill.
According to a campus crime statistics report covering 2012-2014, students reported 3 assaults, 14 burglaries and 3 thefts of motor vehicles on campus.
Supporters of the bill said armed campuses would likely serve as a deterrent to crime and mass shootings.
Kelsi Pulczinksi said she is a full-time student at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“Every time I step foot on campus, I see signs adorning doorways that declare my public school a gun-free zone,” Pulczinksi wrote in comments supporting the bill. “When I see these signs, I know that I am not as safe as I could be. Criminals do not target areas where their victims are likely to be able to defend themselves.”
Those opposed to the bill said they did not believe that allowing guns to be carried on campuses would make students feel safe.
Lily Pothier, a 21-year-old sociology major at the University of Alaska Southeast said she was not supportive concealed firearms on campus and believed that there needed to be more discussion about how concealed weapons could change the dynamics of safety on a college campus.
“There are many other types of violence that are a big problem on college campus,” Pothier said. “I think that it’s likely that there would be differentials in power that would arise from having concealed weapons on campus. This could affect relationships between student to student between staff and student, I also think that the change that happens in the atmosphere of a public space when people are aware that there are concealed weapons is not a positive change.”
At least 19 states ban concealed weapons on college campuses including California, Florida, Illinois and Louisiana; 23 states allow individual universities to decide whether to allow concealed weapons, according to a 2015 guns on campuses overview by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Utah is the only state with a statute specifically naming public colleges and universities as public entities that do not have the authority to ban concealed carry weapons, according to the report.