Campus Carry at UTK: Where does the debate stand?
At least two organizations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville are wrapping up the fall semester expecting to talk a lot more about campus carry when they return in the spring.
“Campus carry” refers broadly to allowing guns on traditionally gun-free college campuses. At UT, it’s synonymous with July changes to Tennessee law TCA 39–17–1309 that allowed full-time UT employees with valid gun permits to carry concealed handguns on most university property.
Though debate over the policy seemed to stagnate during its first fall semester in effect, the quiet period will not last long, according to former UT Faculty Senate President Bruce MacLennan.
“We dealt with the issue of guns on campus last year, and we know — or at least we suspect — that the issue is going to continue this year,” MacLennan said.
UT Chief of Police Troy Lane expressed at a Diversity Dialogue Town Hall forum on Nov. 15 that while he did not expect immediate changes to campus carry, they were certainly possible.
“What I’m hearing is that this is not a law that we anticipate further movement on,” Lane said. “But that could change tomorrow.”
That possibility prompted some members of the UT Faculty Senate to form an ad hoc task force regarding guns on campus in September.
“We want to address it before the legislature gets into business and try to have some plans,” MacLennan said.
Prior to the 2016 discussion about campus carry, the UT Faculty Senate had left the topic mostly untouched since passing a 2011 resolution in support of the then-current campus weapons prohibition and stating that defense should be left in the hands of law enforcement, like UTPD.
Though he would not state an opinion for or against the law, Chief Lane said that the UTPD was involved in crafting some of the restrictions found in the law and the University’s official campus concealed carry policy, SA0875.
Some of these restrictions include requiring faculty to inform police of their intent to carry, creating strict rules for keeping weapons concealed and on the carrier at all times and making certain buildings and events off limits.
Despite these restrictions, UT faculty said an overwhelming no to any guns on campus.
A Faculty Senate survey found that of the 42 percent of faculty who responded to the poll, 87 percent believed guns were not in the best interest of the community.
Major concerns from the faculty include undiagnosed mental health issues and preserving an environment for safe debate.
“Having guns on campus increases the chance for all kinds of other problems on campus especially with so many undiagnosed mental issues,” MacLennan said.
The law as it stands does not require UT employees who choose to carry handguns to undergo any mental health screenings or extra training. The UTPD offers free additional training, but says that of the 130 people who informed them of intent to carry, only 10 partook in this practice.
It does require proof of a valid handgun permit issued by the State of Tennessee Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security.
According to UTPD Officer John Platt, this approach led to a quiet semester without problems.
“So far we haven’t had any issues at all. They’re doing a good job concealing it if they are carrying,” Platt said.
To members of the faculty, a semester with no incidents does not equal success. Looking ahead, they want to prevent the expansion of campus carry.
“I think we’re more worried about this being the first step to letting everybody have weapons on campus,” MacLennan said. “We do see this as a slippery slope issue.”
Members of the UTK chapter of Students for Concealed Carry want just that. They want to expand the law to encompass all valid handgun permit owners, including students.
“We believe that if you’re going to legally obtain a permit and want to carry a gun on campus, you should be able to,” Chandler Tuck, President of Students for Concealed Carry at UTK, said.
While Students for Concealed Carry is a national organization started after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Tuck said it was revitalized on the UTK campus in September, months after campus carry took effect.
The group has about 30 members and plans to be more active in the spring, writing letters, generating support and contacting legislators, Tuck said.
Tuck is counting on increased support from students who have been silent on the issue.
“I think that on a college campus there are a lot of people who don’t want to say ‘I support this’ or ‘I’m pro-Second Amendment’ because that is pretty frowned upon since they tend to be more liberal,” Tuck said. “But I think that once people get the word that we’re doing this we’ll grow pretty quick.”
MacLennan said the faculty will rely on the same demographic.
“What we’ve agreed so far is that the voice of the faculty is not so important, that the Legislature can ignore what the faculty think and the administration for that matter,” MacLennan said. “We do think that the more important voice will be from the students and from the students’ parents.”
Student opinion remains to be seen. The Student Government Association did not take an official stance on campus carry, and no major polling effort has gaged student opinion on the topic in Tennessee specifically.
Students, the unknown factor, could trigger the campus carry debate in 2017.