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Legislation aimed at protecting rights raises concerns

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A bill that would allow people to carry handguns on college campuses is getting mixed reviews from area legislators and a thumbs-down from local college executives.

Students and area law enforcement officials, meanwhile, are expressing varying opinions about the bill, which comes in the aftermath of last month’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six others died.

However, state Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, a co-author of the bill, said the legislation is not a response to that incident but intended to protect constitutional rights. The same bill was introduced and died in last year’s General Assembly.

State Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, introduced Senate Bill 97 on Jan. 7 in the Indiana General Assembly after he was approached by students who wanted to carry firearms for protection. The bill would allow students, faculty, staff and anyone else with a gun permit to conceal and carry firearms at state-funded colleges.

Walker said the U.S. and Indiana constitutions permit citizens to bear arms for their personal protection. When colleges make rules prohibiting people from carrying guns on campus, those rules violate those constitutions, he added.

Colleges that create gun-free zones on their campuses want people to believe they are safe, Walker said. But people have to adhere to those rules for that safety to be ensured, he added.

“It stops honest citizens. It doesn’t stop a criminal who has evil intentions,” he said.

Walker said allowing people to carry firearms on campus could help deter emergency situations and, if necessary, end them before they go too far.

He disagrees with the idea that if more guns were on campuses because of this legislation that the potential for tragedies would increase. That’s because those who have obtained gun permits have passed the required background checks, to make sure they’re not felons or have mental health problems.

“Guns are inanimate objects. They don’t jump up and start hurting people,” Walker said.

Senate Bill 97 may not be on the fast track to approval in the General Assembly, however.

Because the bill was assigned to the Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure, it’s quite possible that it will not even receive a hearing, said State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus.

Smith referred to the rules committee as a “cemetery” for bills that do not have favor with the president pro tempore of the Senate.

He expressed his own concerns about the bill and believes college representatives need to be part of the discussion.

“My main concern would be the students,” Smith said.

He wondered if students would be required to keep their guns locked in a safe in their dorm room. He’s concerned that if someone took a gun to a party, and alcohol were involved, that it could increase the risk for a tragedy.

“We need to do what is best for the students,” said Smith who disagrees with the idea that this is a constitutional issue.

“Why hasn’t there been a lawsuit filed then and it found unconstitutional?”

Police opinion

Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said this legislation could open a “can of worms” that would create an even more volatile atmosphere on campuses if the bill were passed.

“This is not the Old West,” Gorbett said. “If you have people who are unstable, this gives them easy access to guns if they have a knee-jerk reaction. It creates a whole new nightmare.”

Gorbett said the argument that arming students could serve as a deterrent to crime is ridiculous.

The sheriff said that, if anything, a gunman’s knowledge that other students might be carrying handguns could incite him to do something more rash than he otherwise might have intended.

Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix stopped short of saying whether he thinks guns on campus are a good or bad idea. He said the decision should be left to the individual colleges, just as it is under the current state law.

“There needs to be more discussion on this matter,” he said. “It’s a tough situation. Each college can decide for themselves what works for them and what creates a safe environment.”

College opinion

Local college executives prefer to keep guns off of their campuses.

IUPUC, Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus/Franklin and Purdue College of Technology all get some level of state government funding, which means they would be subject to the new law if the bill passed.

Marwan Wafa, vice chancellor and dean of IUPUC, said such a law could have serious negative implications. He said people in general can “emotionally surge” in certain situations, even if that situation doesn’t necessarily warrant it.

He said just because a student has a permit to conceal and carry a gun doesn’t mean he is trained to know when and how to act appropriately. He said that’s why the only person on the IUPUC campus authorized to carry a gun is Lt. Doug Johnson, a recently hired, full-time police officer, who has that training.

IUPUC also uses a private company for unarmed security, has concealed panic buttons throughout the college building and makes emergency phones available indoors and outdoors. The campus shares its full-time police officer and unarmed security with Purdue College of Technology and Ivy Tech, which are next to it on north Central Avenue.

Joseph Fuehne, director and associate professor at Purdue College of Technology, said there are several reasons he wants his school to remain gun-free. One is that he thinks emergency workers responding to a shooting would have a hard time identifying the gunman.

“If you put two or more guns into a situation like that and the police arrive, how do they decide who is who?” Fuehne said. “They could do it, but I think it would take some time.”

Fuehne said Purdue College of Technology has emergency buttons for staff members, emergency phones indoors and outdoors and lockdown procedures that designate certain rooms for students and staffers to hide in if the need arises.

Randy Proffitt, executive director of marketing and communications at Ivy Tech Community College-Columbus/Franklin, said Ivy Tech has those same kinds of security features.

He said the ideology behind the Senate bill needs more study.

“We understand the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, and we also place the safety of our students as a top priority,” Proffitt said. “We plan to work with sponsors and leaders to do what is in the best interest and security of our students.”

Mark Volpatti, executive director of administration and finance for IUPUC, said the unarmed security officers come in handy, especially at night, for those times when people don’t feel safe walking to their cars after class in the dark.

Student opinion

IUPUC students interviewed by The Republic had varying opinions.

Alexandria Beasley, 21, said she can understand allowing students to have guns on campus but only if they keep them in their cars. Beasley said she also can understand allowing teachers and administrators to keep them in locked desk drawers.

Christina Moore, 18, said the bill is a poorly conceived idea that would only make it easier for students to hurt others in moments of passion, before they regain control of their emotions.

“Everyone has their breaking point,” she said.

Amanda Holley, 20, disagreed. She said people who get permits prove they are responsible enough to carry guns on campus.

She said she comes from a family of hunters who prize the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms.

“I don’t know if carrying guns necessarily makes us safer, but it’s a good insurance policy,” she said. “I do think you should be 21 or older.”

Terrance Wheeler, 20, said he can see both sides of the issue. But he said his option to carry one or not to carry one would essentially be made for him if guns were allowed on campus.

“I’d feel like I’d have to carry one, too, just to keep up with everybody else” he said. “It would be a whole new environment.”

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