About 100 West Virginia University faculty and students gathered outside of Woodburn Circle Thursday afternoon to voice their concerns about a so-called “campus carry” bill making its way through the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Under current law anyone in West Virignia over the age of 21 can apply for a concealed carry permit. Individuals between the age of 18-20 can apply for a provisional permit. Colleges and universities have the jurisdiction to decide whether to permit concealed firearms on campus.
House Bill 2519 would allow individuals, including students, who have a permit to conceal carry a gun to do so on campus with some exceptions. If passed, the bill stipulates concealed firearms would not be allowed in on campus daycares, dorm rooms and organized events in spaces with the capacity for more than 1,000 people.
Delegates earlier this week voted to bypass the bill's second reference to the House Finance Committee and send it straight to the House floor, but changed course Thursday. Judiciary Chair John Shott, R-Mercer, moved to commit the bill to the Finance Committee. That motion was adopted on a voice vote. HB 2519 has a fiscal note attached that finds full implementation of the bill will cost upwards of $11 million.
Educators and students at WVU who attended the protest came adorned with signs saying things like, "Books not bullets on campus" and "Hey Dr. Gee, what color bow tie did the NRA give you," a reference to WVU president Gordon Gee.
HB 2519 has support in both chambers of the Legislature and from groups like the National Rifle Association.
Speaking through a megaphone, WVU Geography Professor Amy Hessl told the crowd educators across the state must speak out against the measure to lawmakers in Charleston.
"It's time for us to stand up for what we hold sacred and we hold the relationship between ourselves and our students sacred," she said. "No reasonable person would allow teachers to carry guns in K-12 classrooms. Neither should any reasonable person consider having faculty and students carrying arms in classrooms."
Cynthia Gorman, an associate professor of geography who teaches courses on international human rights and migration, said she worries not only about the safety of her colleagues and students, but also about the impacts guns may have to learning environments on college campuses.
"I deal with a lot of controversial topics in the courses that I teach and I can only imagine that it could stifle conversation, important conversations that need to happen if the professor and other students are fearful about other students in the classroom and how they might react to things they don’t agree with," she said.
A 2016 report by Johns Hopkins University found allowing guns on campus does not lead to fewer mass shootings or casualties. It could, however, make other acts of aggression or suicide more likely.
The movement to allow concealed guns on college campuses has gained momentum nationwide. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of August 2018, 16 states have banned carrying a concealed weapon on a college campus. In recent years, lawmakers across the country have introduced dozens of bills to allow concealed carry on campuses.
Former WVU student Jackson Wolfe was one of a handful of supporters of the bill at Thursday’s protest. He said the bill has enough provisions built in to ensure the safety of the campus community.
“It’s not like a bunch of yahoos out here carrying a bunch of AK-47s and stuff like that into classrooms," he said. "So, I’d like to dispel the myth that it’s going to be like ‘O.K. Corral.’”
For its part, university officials say they would prefer not to have the Legislature dictating whether or not guns can be allowed on campus.
"There’s a lot of folks on our campus who are very passionate about the issue and so we’ve tried to engage in some dialogue with them and express to the Legislature on those sensitive issues that we retain our discretion on this issues to keep our campus safe," said Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives at WVU.
The university has worked to add more protections to the current bill including lowering the size of venues where concealed firearms would not be allowed to 1,000 people and prohibiting them from dorm rooms. Under the bill, concealed weapons would be allowed in on-campus residence halls and classrooms.
Representatives from the state's smaller institutions of higher education, including Concord University, Glenville State University and West Liberty University all oppose the legislation.
“This is my 18th year as a college president. I understand that campus safety is of primary importance and I have firsthand experience with a domestic incident at a prior college," President Greiner of WLU said in a statment. “I’ve lived every president’s worst nightmare, and I never ever want to do that again.”
Greiner said a triple homicide at a college in Hazard, Kentucky five years ago still haunts him, and he worries violent domestic disturbances like that are only more likely given the proposed legislation. Parents, staff and many students are also opposed and he says enrollment would definitely drop if the law is passed.
A statement from Concord University said the school was opposed to the bill for many reasons including "increased likelihood of suicide, the delicate mental health of some young adults, the escalation of violent conflict, accidental discharge, and confusion in tactical situations."
Glenville State University president Tracy Pallett pointed out that a significant concern for smaller schools is the inevitable costs associated with increased preventative safety measures such as metal detectors for sports events, lock boxes and safe rooms.
“I’d much rather use those monies to better the academic outcomes of our students," he said.
In a statement, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert strongly came out against the bill and guns on campus.
"The safety and security of our students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance to us and this legislation threatens the very foundation of that responsibility," he stated.