The contentious debate over the rights of permit-holders to bring guns onto college campuses was back in the spotlight last week with news that a University of Colorado staffer accidentally fired her handgun, injuring herself and a colleague. Now a representative of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police says it's clear that colleges should have the right to make their own gun policies.
The issue of how campuses can regulate guns in Colorado got a lot of attention in the state surrounding a long battle, led by a student group, to allow those with concealed-carry permits to bring guns on to campuses. That national organization, Students for Concealed Carry, won the fight when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in March that CU had to respect the rights of permitted gun-holders. It was a big shift in on-campus policy, given the fact that two years earlier, CU-Boulder had added Nerf guns to its weapons ban.
Since the March ruling, the discussion of its ramifications has ranged from how officials can regulate guns in dormitories and at campus events to what rights professors have to cancel a lecture if students bring guns into a classroom.
One of the main arguments of the gun rights' groups is that concealed-carry permit holders have guns on them everywhere else, so it becomes discriminatory, and even dangerous, to ban them from carrying on a college campus. Plus, opponents of gun bans say, those with permits have gone through necessary processes that ensure they are properly trained and understand necessary safety precautions.
Groups pushing for stricter gun policies are now going after the latter part of the pro-gun argument, pointing to an incident last week when a woman with her proper license pulled out her handgun in a CU office and accidentally fired a shot that injured her hand and also hit another woman in the leg. She is no longer employed at the university.
Students for Concealed Carry says that unfortunate incident was the mistake of one individual who should face necessary consequences, but it does not justify taking rights away from responsible licensed individuals. Still, a spokesman from that group told us, he is worried that the accident will open up the door to renewed calls for a ban.
And those calls are coming.
John Jackson, chief of police in Greenwood Village and the legislative chair of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, says that while it is not his job to call for a statewide ban on guns on college campuses, he believes institutions should have the right to set policy.
"We are concerned about public safety. That's where we are going to side all the time," says Jackson. "We are interested in the safety of the entire society as opposed to one person."
Continue for the rest of our interview with John Jackson.
"Just like anyone has a perceived right to carry weapons, businesses have a right to protect the entity as a whole," Jackson says, adding that it's only logical that college campuses, like any private entity, should have a right to ban guns if they choose to do so.
"The Chiefs of Police are very concerned about what just happened," he says. "The person who accidentally fired off a gun in an office...how it happened may or may not matter. The fact that it did happen...means someone could've been hurt or killed."
At the end of the day, he says, he personally feels more confident in trained officers at police departments rather than individuals outside of law enforcement agencies who are permitted to carry guns. "I'm not a big fan of the overall mandates. Each college campus might be different," he explains. "But I'm going to say that I trust the police departments to partner with the campus police departments.... They are very well-trained people...and I trust those entities to handle problems.... I'm not as trusting of individuals."
At this point, the state Supreme Court has made its ruling and university officials say they will continue to follow the law and allow those with permits to bring guns onto campus. It's possible that proposed legislation could emerge to reconsider campus bans or give universities the right to regulate guns more strictly if they choose -- and the Chiefs of Police group would likely support measures of that nature.
In recent months, there has been much debate over access to guns in Colorado, given Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes purchased powerful weapons and fired shots that killed twelve and injured dozens more in July. In fact, the accidental discharge this month -- the first firing of its kind of a permit-holder on a Colorado campus -- took place at the Anschutz Medical Campus, where Holmes was studying.
In a statement posted on the Students for Concealed Carry website, spokesman David Burnett says, "It's unfortunate that some groups are rushing to premature judgment and exploiting this unfortunate situation for political gain," adding, "No one believes in punishing all for the sins of the few. The reality is that over 200 campuses in six states allow campus carry without incident. Some of them have done so for years."
Ultimately, Jackson says, law enforcement officials are going to do whatever they can to prevent crime and shootings: "We have to be right 100 percent of the time. [Shooters] only have to be right once," he notes. "We're not ones to say that more guns always makes it more safe."
More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "William Costello's assault on an elderly man leads to DNA test -- and serial-rapist bust"
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.