BOULDER, COLO. - Public colleges and universities have become a major front in the nation's debate over guns as gun-rights advocates press to expand the right to carry concealed weapons, a campaign that gained steam after the 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, which left 33 people dead. And though guns remain banned from most state colleges, pro-gun forces, in a series of high-decibel legal and political battles, have made inroads on the issue in a handful of states, most recently Colorado.
But the clashes seem divorced from realities on campus. On both sides, arguments are built largely on anecdotal evidence and on behalf of a student population that shows little passion for the dispute. After a high-profile fight over guns at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a court ruling last winter forced the university to allow concealed weapons. Students and administrators said the new policy had made no noticeable difference in life on campus.
Guns prohibited in dorms
There has been no sign of a proliferation of guns, which are still prohibited in most dormitories. Although the university has offered a small number of housing units where students could keep guns, so far there have been no takers.
"I don't think it's a big concern for students," said Rebecca Naccarato, 22, a senior from Pueblo, Colo. "I think students weren't really even aware of how much noise there was about it."
In 2004, the National Research Foundation reviewed extensive research and concluded that there was no clear evidence that making it easy for law-abiding people to carry concealed weapons increased or decreased violence. Still, that has not persuaded partisans on either side, and the debate flared again after mass killings like those last July at a theater in nearby Aurora and in December at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Opponents of allowing the carrying of concealed weapons say it increases the risk of accidents, and of ordinary confrontations escalating to lethal force. Supporters say it gives pause to criminals, and a fighting chance to potential victims.
"If you had asked students the morning of the Virginia Tech shooting if they feel safe, I'm almost positive all of them would have said yes, but just a couple of hours later, those students found out that feeling safe is not the same as being safe," said David Burnett, a spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry, a group that was formed after that shooting and has campaigned to overturn college gun bans in several states, including Colorado. "And smaller crimes are as much a reason for self-defense as spree killings."
'Not having easy access'
Burnett, 27, is a nursing student at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where he leaves a .45-caliber Glock pistol in the glove box of his Toyota because it is prohibited in class. His group, which says it has members on 130 campuses nationwide, sued his university in 2010, and the state Supreme Court ruled that employees and students may leave guns in cars parked on campus.
Students for Concealed Carry, which is made up of volunteers and says it has no connection to the National Rifle Association or other gun rights organizations, considered the ruling a partial victory in its larger effort.
At the other end of the spectrum are students like Julie A. Gavran, a doctoral candidate in Dallas who is a coordinator at Students for Gun-Free Schools, a national group also founded after the Virginia Tech shooting. She says that one night years ago, when she was an undergraduate at Ohio Dominican University, a fellow student in a dormitory hallway aimed a gun at her face and pulled the trigger. The gun either jammed or was not loaded, Gavran said, and she lived to tell her story. "Schools are actually the safest place to be," she said, "because not having easy access to guns maintains that environment."
On the whole, colleges and universities are safe and getting safer. According to the federal government, college campuses averaged about 18 homicides nationwide per year over the last decade, and more than 90 percent of violent crime against college students takes place off campus. The police at the University of Colorado campus here, with 30,000 students, 7,000 staff members and countless visitors, say that the last gun crime, a robbery, occurred in 2011, and the last homicide in the 1980s.