Belmont University officials are ready to try to internally curb the impact of state legislation allowing gun carry permit holders to leave their guns in their cars on campus.
The legislation, Senate Bill 142, allows those who have state-recognized gun carry permits to transport and keep a firearm and ammunition in their cars while in public or private parking lots. Under the policy, students, faculty, staff and visitors with state permits would not be prosecuted for bringing firearms with them to campus.
The once-controversial legislation was signed by Governor Bill Haslam last Friday, nearly a year after similar legislation was not brought to the full House and Senate floors and drew the ire of the National Rifle Association.
But while the legislation would keep permit holders from being prosecuted for bringing firearms to campus in their vehicles, it does not mean they could take these guns out of their vehicles and carry them on their person.
It also does not mean institutions and businesses must have similar internal policies.
“It’s of critical importance,” said Dr. Claude Pressnell, the president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, which lobbies for Belmont at the state Capitol. “For independent colleges, we would like our campuses to reserve the right on how to handle the issue.”
After public opposition to the legislation, which has been debated in some form for two years, Belmont will do what is in its power to weaken the bill’s effect on campus. The school currently bans any types of weapons on campus except for those possessed by some members of campus security.
“Even if the proposed legislation becomes law, Belmont will explore all available options for lawfully excluding guns and other weapons from our campus,” Dr. Jason Rogers, vice president for administration and university counsel, said in an email.
“For example, we believe that while the new law would prevent gun owners with carry permits from being criminally prosecuted for possessing a gun in their vehicles on university property, it would not prevent the university from enforcing an internal policy applicable to its students and employees prohibiting them from bringing handguns or other firearms to campus in their vehicles.”
That sentiment is one President Bob Fisher has also expressed. When he spoke in front of a Senate committee last year against a similar bill, he said he wanted to keep the level of gun crimes on campus – one in the past 12 years – exactly where it is.
“I simply cannot logically connect how it could be any safer with untrained students or untrained employees having easy access to firearms,” Fisher said.
In addition to the passed legislation, TICUA officials are trying to change current laws that already allow some to carry weapons, not just firearms, in their vehicles on campus. A state statute now allows non-student adults to bring guns to campus whether they have a permit or not.
“Technically, it’s safer on a Walmart parking lot than it will be on Belmont’s campus,” Pressnell said.
Whether those who would be allowed to bring firearms or weapons would be trained is an issue debatable on campus. Political science professor Dr. Vaughn May, a gun owner himself, said the people who take the time to get certified as permit holders with the state should have enough experience to effectively handle weapons.
“Most people who do take those steps are very responsible with their weapons,” he said. “I don’t think we have anything to fear from trained gun owners on campus.”
Even when they can legally carry a concealed weapon, not all of the handgun owners can do so permanently. Records obtained by the Associated Press found that in Tennessee 2,133 people have had their permits revoked or suspended after being charged with a crime or issued a restraining order. These figures, however, were of a tiny fraction of the 390,343 people who have have active permits, according to a Tennessee Department of Safety report.
By enacting such regulations, May said the university is treating it’ students like the “children most of them aren’t.”
“I think it’s paternalistic, to be honest,” May said. “I don’t think we should be in the business where we don’t allow adults to do things they’re legally allowed to.”
Even without language that keeps institutions from enacting their own rules, May feels the legislation and the private policies it allows is one that likely strikes a balance between supporters of private property rights and the Second Amendment.
“That’s fair,” he said. “People who are uncomfortable with having guns in their parking lots have the right to keep them out.”