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.
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. "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."
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.
But each college is different. One plaintiff in the University of Colorado case, Martha Altman, 47, said she often felt unsafe walking to and from her car at night while working at a university facility in Aurora and taking classes at the downtown Denver campus — areas that are riskier than the Boulder campus.
Gun-rights advocates also note that the few schools where concealed weapons have been allowed for years, like the Colorado State University campuses, have not had resulting problems.
There is no way to know how many students or staff members at the University of Colorado have concealed weapon permits, which can be issued only to people 21 or older, but both sides agree that the number is small. Estimates range from 50 to 150.
Several of those who have publicly acknowledged having a permit also have extensive gun training, being military veterans or former police officers. Elisa Dahlberg, a 31-year-old senior, is both. "This campus is relatively safe; however, that doesn’t mean somebody won’t lose it," Dahlberg said. "I’m pretty small, and I feel like it levels the playing field."
One factor affecting campus attitudes is that highly educated people are more likely to have anti-gun views. In a Pew Research Center survey released in December, 66 percent of people with postgraduate degrees said prioritizing gun control was more important than protecting gun rights.
The number of Americans owning guns has declined for decades, especially in a younger generation that has less military or hunting experience than its predecessors. About 12 percent of adults under 35 keep a gun at home, less than half the rate for their elders, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Gavran, the gun-free schools advocate, believes that the push to allow weapons on campus is an attempt by gun-rights groups to reverse that trend. "I honestly believe the NRA is trying to get a new generation of gun owners," she said, "and by pushing more laws that will allow them to freely carry guns wherever they want, they’re able to make a new generation more open to gun ownership."
Most states either prohibit firearms on public campuses or leave it up to the colleges and universities, which nearly always opt to ban them.
In 2004, Utah enacted a law explicitly extending concealed carry rights to public colleges and universities. In 2011, Mississippi and Wisconsin adopted laws allowing varying degrees of concealed carry at those states’ universities, and that same year a state appeals court in Oregon struck down a policy banning guns from public universities there.
And it was last March that Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the University of Colorado had been violating a 2003 state law by prohibiting concealed weapons. The change drew fierce protests from editorial writers and faculty members, and some professors still have signs posted outside their offices asking people not to enter armed.
Since then, however, nearly all students interviewed here described shades of gray, addressing practical concerns more than ideals.
Julia Millon, 21, a senior from Boston, said that the possibility of guns in classrooms initially "creeped out a lot of people," but that she and others had come to see it as "not a very big deal." She dislikes the idea of concealed weapons on campus, though she does not object to them elsewhere.
"I’ve never felt the need to protect myself on campus," she said. "I personally don’t see the point of it."