Capitol Alert

California weighs banning concealed handguns on campuses

Jane Williams of Napa lobbies Gov. Jerry Brown to sign all the gun bills sent to him after he spoke at the fourth annual Crime Victims’ Rights Rally at the Capitol on April 13, 2013.
Jane Williams of Napa lobbies Gov. Jerry Brown to sign all the gun bills sent to him after he spoke at the fourth annual Crime Victims’ Rights Rally at the Capitol on April 13, 2013. Sacramento Bee file

Already praised by many gun control advocates for having the strictest firearms laws in the country, California is once again considering a move to tighten its restrictions with a ban on the concealed carry of handguns at colleges and schools.

Last year, California was the first in the nation to let families and police act to remove weapons temporarily from those considered at risk of violence. This time, it would follow dozens of other states that previously have put similar prohibitions in place – and a growing number moving in the opposite direction to expand gun rights on campuses.

Gov. Jerry Brown is considering the legislation as the nation mourns another school shooting – Thursday’s spree in Roseburg, Ore., that left 10 dead. The bill puts California in the midst of a policy debate gaining prominence as gun advocates such as the National Rifle Association, having won significant victories guaranteeing ownership rights, turn their focus to the right to carry and the status of firearms in public spaces.

“There’s no question that the power of the NRA is at its height today,” said John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School who studies the effects of gun laws on public safety. “People who want guns don’t want to have restrictions that impede them going about their daily lives.”

Current California law makes it illegal to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school or on a college campus without permission from administrators, but it includes exemptions for retired law enforcement officers and those with concealed carry permits.

Senate Bill 707, by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would expand the prohibition on school and college grounds to include concealed weapons, while keeping the same rules in place for the 1,000-foot zone surrounding schools and for law enforcement. On a nearly party-line vote, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed, lawmakers approved the measure in early September; Brown has until Oct. 11 to act.

The idea for the bill came from university and college police, who say school officials should have more control over campus safety. Concealed handgun permits, which require residents to show “good cause” that they are in immediate danger, are handed out by county sheriffs, who vary in their interpretation of the policy.

Lurking on the periphery are two federal developments that could seriously undermine California’s restrictive law: Legislation proposed in Congress would require states to recognize concealed carry permits issued anywhere, though the legislation has not advanced, and a lawsuit now at the appellate level has already seen one judge strike down the “good cause” requirement as unconstitutional.

“If the decision of the 9th Circuit (Court of Appeals) affirms the lower court, that will open the floodgates for people to get concealed carry permits,” Donohue said.

In a statement, Wolk said SB 707 “would put California more in line with most states that already forbid concealed firearms on school or college campuses.”

“This is one of the unusual cases where California law is more lax than other states,” she said. “Most people I hear from are astonished that someone could legally carry a concealed firearm onto school grounds.”

The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech – still one of the deadliest in history with 33 casualties, including the perpetrator, and an additional 17 wounded – generated intense controversy over gun policy and brought the question of concealed carry on campus to the national stage. Eight years later, it continues to echo.

In a national address Thursday, President Barack Obama decried the lack of legislative effort to prevent further mass shootings such as the one that day at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where a gunman killed nine people before dying in a shootout with police. The Oregon higher education board had previously banned guns from college campuses, but a court overturned that policy in 2011, stating that only the Legislature had the authority to regulate firearms.

California has faced recent incidents such as the 2014 Isla Vista rampage that claimed the lives of six UC Santa Barbara students and their killer, and a confrontation at Sacramento City College last month that left one dead.

Much of the fight over campus carry boils down to whether guns make us more or less safe. Advocates argue that students with firearms may be able to help prevent crimes such as mass shootings and rapes.

Speaking against SB 707 on the Assembly floor, Assemblywoman Shannon Grove said carrying concealed weapons could offer a “sense of protection” to young women. “If I’m walking down the street at night, my Glock puts me on even footing with anybody that would ever try to come and hurt me,” the Bakersfield Republican said.

During a Senate deliberation, Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, suggested it could be “a very strong way to curtail some of the nonsense that’s going on” with campus sexual assaults.

Gun control supporters counter that throwing firearms onto a campus with young people, alcohol, mental health issues and strongly held beliefs on controversial topics is a dangerous mix.

“It’s a fairly volatile environment,” said Laura Cutilleta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocated for SB 707. “To add guns to that is just alarming.”

It’s a debate that’s not likely to be settled any time soon. At least 14 states have introduced legislation to allow guns on campus in each of the past three years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We think it’s a really important issue,” NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said. “The right to personal safety doesn’t disappear the second you step on a campus.”

Most of those bills ultimately have failed, but there has been some momentum: Campus carry is now legal in eight states, six of them since 2011, compared with 19 states with bans. The remainder do not explicitly address the issue, leaving regulation up to schools.

Proponents scored their biggest victory this year when Texas voted to allow concealed weapons on campuses beginning next year. Unlike most other states, which excluded buildings from their statutes, the Texas law could enable students and faculty to carry handguns into dorms and classrooms – though in a concession to the universities, which strenuously opposed the measure, campuses will be able to carve out “gun-free zones.”

A nascent effort at the elementary and secondary level may have been sparked by NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s call to put armed security at every school in the country after the Newtown massacre in December 2012.

Bans are more sweeping than at college campuses – 48 states generally prohibit firearms in schools, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and 39 specifically forbid concealed carry – but advocates are taking them on now as well.

Sixteen states introduced bills this year that would expand the ability of people to bring guns onto school grounds, ranging from employees to parents dropping off their children in the parking lot. Oklahoma authorized concealed carry for teachers and administrators if they get permission from their school boards and undergo special training.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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