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Tennessee bills could let college students carry guns on campus

Tony Casey • Updated Feb 22, 2017 at 8:50 AM

Since a 2016 state law allowed full-time faculty and staff of Tennessee universities and colleges with handgun carry permits to carry their firearms on campuses, 50 people on East Tennessee State University’s campus have taken advantage of this law.

A year later, one goal of gun-friendly legislators in this session of the General Assembly is to extend that right to most valid permit holders, including students.

House bills 0363 and 0884 would give most anyone with a permit the ability to go armed at schools, despite mixed feelings from some administrators, students and interested parties.

House Bill 0363 would allow handgun carry permit holders to carry a concealed handgun into state or local government buildings unless there are metal detectors and armed security guards stationed at the entrance. House Bill 0884 would allow valid handgun carry permit holders to carry their firearms in all places in Tennessee unless that person has been drinking alcohol, is in a judicial proceeding or is on grade-school grounds and didn’t tell the principal.

K-12 schools would be covered under these proposed pieces of legislation, though because of Tennessee’s laws — unless a person is or was a member of the military — handgun carry permits can only be obtained by people 21 years and older. At an elementary school, this would allow parents, teachers and staff to openly carry.

In January, organized faculty groups from every public university in the state voiced opposition to allowing students to carry guns on campuses, saying “allowing students to have guns on campuses will increase the incidence of events of violence” and “allowing students to have guns on campus will foster a hostile work environment for faculty, staff, and students employed on campus.”

This resolution passed by members of the Tennessee University Faculty Senates was approved by more than two-thirds of all faculty senates of member universities.

Randy Byington, an East Tennessee State University faculty member and president of TUFS, said the pre-emptive action was taken to ensure the safety of the state’s campuses.

“Our primary concern is that allowing students to have guns in their possession on campus will increase violent events and will create a hostile work environment for faculty, staff, and other students,” said Byington. “While we have the highest regard for the Second Amendment rights of all individuals, we are all aware that there are many conversations surrounding academic performance, disciplinary actions, financial aid status, and other issues that can become intense and potentially volatile. TUFS believes the presence of handguns could turn a hostile situation into a potentially deadly situation.”

Anna Ketron, a junior and native of Coeburn, Virginia, studying radiology at ETSU, said she would like the ability to have a gun with her on campus, should a situation arise in which she would need to defend herself.

Ketron predicted implementation of a law allowing students to carry their guns legally on campus would roll out much like it did when faculty and staff were allowed to openly carry — rather uneventfully, from what she can tell.

A recent Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research paper titled, “Firearms on College Campuses: Research Evidence and Policy Implications” concluded that “Increasing gun availability in campus environments could make far more common acts of aggression, recklessness, or self-harm more deadly and, thus, have a deleterious impact on the safety of students, faculty, and staff.”

Some opponents of armed campuses worry that allowing firearms where stress and depression often create thoughts of suicide could be fatal for at-risk students.

ETSU associate psychology professor Dr. James Hirsch estimated in 2015 that 22 percent of ETSU students, a population of 3,300, have thought or made a plan to attempt suicide in the past. Six percent of ETSU’s students, 900 people, reported that they had thought about suicide in the previous year.

Ketron said one of her family members committed suicide with a gun, but, as a gun supporter, she said the focus for prevention should be on programs that help people suffering through depression or with suicidal thoughts rather than blaming guns.

John Harris, Executive Director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, and ETSU student and gun rights advocate Jay Adkins are in agreement that a person’s rights shouldn’t end once they enter onto a college campus.

“Further, the fundamental right of self-defense does not exist and then not-exist depending on where a person may be geographically located at any point in time,” Harris said in a statement to the Press. “An individual has a natural instinct — something much more divine than a right — to defend herself with force, including deadly force, if that is what is required to survive.”

Adkins, the ETSU contact for www.concealedcampus.org, applies a similar argument for permitting guns on campuses.

“My big thing is that you've got students, faculty, staff here at ETSU, here at every university in the state, who carry their weapons, but when they walk onto campus, it doesn't make them less responsible or more dangerous,” he said. “If they're trusted by the state, they should be trusted by the school.”

Trey Trammell, a junior and physical education major from Kingsport, said he’s comfortable with guns, but doesn’t think they belong in the hands of students on ETSU’s campus.

“Isn’t that what the police are for?” he asked.

ETSU Public Safety Chief Jack Cotrel opposes measures that would allow faculty and staff to openly carry. He cited the amount of extra training that his officers would have to undergo, among other safety considerations on campus.

Email Tony Casey at [email protected]. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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