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Gun ban in college buildings?: Boulder rep plans legislation despite court ruling

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It just doesn't make sense for lawmakers to allow guns on college campuses, where the risks of suicide or shootings tied to mental health illness can be high. At least that's an argument of Boulder Representative Claire Levy, who is crafting legislation that would add campus buildings to the list of places where concealed-carry weapons are banned in Colorado.

Her opponents say the law would only make colleges more dangerous.

Levy, a Democrat, plans to introduce the legislation next cycle, which begins in January -- and the proposal is likely to stir up a good deal of controversy. That's in part because of the ongoing debate around access to guns on campus that stems back to a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in the spring.

After a long battle led by a student gun-rights group to allow those with concealed-carry permits to bring guns on to campuses, the court ordered the University of Colorado to respect the rights of permitted gun-holders. That meant university officials had to allow guns on campus -- just two years after it had banned Nerf guns.

The debate continued as CU-Boulder later made it clear that guns were not allowed in dormitories or at ticketed events -- although there is an on-campus-housing option for concealed carry holders. (No one has used it yet.) And even if professors are uncomfortable with their students bringing guns to their classrooms, there's not much they can legally do about it.

Add the high-profile Aurora theater shooting to the discussion and the debate around gun policy in Colorado is one that gets people, well, fired up.

Levy is expecting push-back to her proposal.

"I anticipate that it will be very controversial. I would be surprised if I get bipartisan support," she says. "I always look for that. I'm not going to rule it out, but I'm not gonna count on it, either."

Levy's legislation would amend the Concealed Carry Act to add buildings on public college campuses to the list of places where guns are not allowed. The Colorado Supreme Court ruling that university officials must allow guns on campuses was essentially a clarification of that law's scope, but Levy's proposal would change the measure to include campus buildings.

Levy says she'll be careful to specify campus buildings and not campuses on the whole, since some of Colorado's public campuses are integrated into the surrounding environments.

Originally, Levy was exploring options for a proposal that would give the Board of Regents, the governing boards of the university, the authority to set their own policies around guns -- meaning they could ban concealed-carry weapons in their buildings if they wanted to, but they wouldn't be required to do so.

But she eventually decided that it made more sense to propose a flat-out ban, so boards charged with campus oversight and policy would not have to carry the burden of these debates.

"I don't want the gun issue to overshadow the decisions that the governing bodies have to make -- setting tuition...about college affordability...about education policy," Levy says. "Given how these [gun issues] tend to be lightening rods...they really have the potential to overshadow what they do."

Levy also decided it made more sense to directly address her major concern: Guns on campuses add unnecessary danger, she believes.

"More importantly, the more I thought about it, and the more I talked about it with students, parents and faculty members, I think we should not allow concealed weapons on campus," she says. "I thought we ought to go straight to the issue and deal with it head-on."

Her case may have been bolstered by an incident last month in which a University of Colorado staffer accidentally fired a shot in an office, causing minor injuries to herself and a colleague. The staffer had a concealed-carry permit.

"It's just one more of many circumstances that convinced me that it's the right thing to do," says Levy.

Continue to see comments from Students for Concealed Carry and a CU official. In addition to possible gun-related accidents, Levy argues that the high rate of suicide among the college demographic is another reason why she will be making this legislative push.

"Statistics show that you are so much more likely to [commit suicide]...when there are firearms that are available," she says, adding that college is a time when new mental illnesses might start to emerge, including bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

"I could go on and on," she says.

Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization that successfully brought the case to the state Supreme Court that resulted in new orders to allow guns on campus, argues that a ban on campus buildings constitutes discrimination -- and would also make these locations less safe.

"It is going to be 0 percent effective at reducing any crime," says SFCC public-relations director David Burnett. "It's a solution in search of a problem. This has been a successful policy."

His organization has repeatedly argued that because those with permits are licensed, go through background checks and allowed to carry guns most everywhere else, banning them from doing so in certain places constitutes discrimination. When incidents like the accidental shooting happen -- and that was the first discharge of its kind since the March ruling in Colorado -- it doesn't mean all legal gun holders should punished, the group argues.

Burnett has said that concealed carry permits increase safety on campus -- arguing in the dormitory debate that gun-free housing on campuses become vulnerable target zones for criminals.

"I'm not surprised," he says of Levy's proposal. "We always have opponents in the legislature who want to shrink our ability to protect ourselves."

He feels a ban on concealed carry equates to a rise in illegal weapons.

"All of Representative Levy's concerns boil down to one question: Do we want illegal or legal guns on campus?" he says. "I don't understand why any...representative, student or professor would oppose legal guns on campus.... [It says] they are somehow comfortable with illegal guns."

For her part, Levy says this proposal won't stop all criminals, but it will reduce the risk of shootings on campus.

"We will continue to have gun violence, unfortunately.... We're still going to have, unfortunately, random shootings," she says. "But we don't need to add to the danger...having people armed who believe they are able to respond in that situation and end up shooting innocent people or having their gun taken and used on themselves."

Ken McConnellogue, a spokesman for the University of Colorado system, says officials are not yet taking a position on Levy's proposal. But he notes that the Board of Regents has in the past been divided on the issue.

Echoing one of Levy's comments, McConnellogue says that while guns are an important societal issue, it would be preferable if this kind of policy debate did not have to be a major discussion for the Board of Regents.

"It's kind of tangential to some of the issues that we have to deal with at the university first and foremost," he says.

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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