As Idaho Colleges Brace For Guns, Here's How Utah Schools Manage It

Jun 5, 2014

On July 1, people with concealed weapons permits can carry their firearms right onto the campus of Boise State, and any other state-run college or university in Idaho. This state is the seventh to allow “campus carry.”

The Idaho Legislature passed the controversial bill despite opposition from the state’s university and college presidents. Earlier this year, Boise State President Bob Kustra told KBSX he believes more guns on campus will make students and faculty less safe. But the sponsor of the measure, Sen. Curt McKenzie, disagrees, and points to Utah where guns have been allowed on campus for a decade without incident.
 

Utah Valley University had 30,880 full and part-time students in 2013.
Utah Valley University had 30,880 full and part-time students in 2013.
Credit ZenHikers / Flickr Creative Commons

At one of Utah’s largest universities, the campus police department is tucked amid practice rooms where music majors trill. Utah Valley University patrol supervisor Justin Sprague is a low-key guy who’s been securing this campus of 30,000 students for two decades.

The main safety concern on his campus is thefts. “We also have a drug problem that we’re aware of,” Sprague says.

When I ask Sprague when the last time Utah Valley had a shooting on campus was, it takes him a few seconds to recall one close to 20 years ago. It was gang-related, and happened outside a sports venue. But that was long before 2004, when the Utah Legislature made it legal to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.

Similar to Idaho, the law was not welcomed by officials at Utah’s eight public universities. But, in 2006, the Utah Supreme Court ruled state schools had to follow the law. College officials braced for a rash of guns firing accidentally in backpacks, students committing suicide, and heated classroom debates turning deadly.

 “The great, great majority of the U.S. higher education community – college presidents, college law enforcement officers, faculty, staff and students – overwhelmingly agree guns, concealed weapons, do not have any place on college campuses,” says American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Dan Hurley.

Utah’s higher education leaders may still agree with that sentiment, but they’re not talking about it. The University of Utah wouldn’t comment on the campus carry law other than to say in a statement that it has “had no incidents on campus regarding this law.”

Utah State University’s campus police chief says there have been a few calls when someone has accidentally exposed a concealed weapon, but “no problems other than that.” The same is true at Utah Valley University, where school officials referred questions to Sgt. Justin Sprague.

 I asked him if he’d prefer that the only armed people on campus be officers. He said no. “Because we can’t be everywhere,” says Sprague. “It almost comforts me knowing that there are other people out there that have weapons too, you know the sooner we stop the threat, the better. I guess personally my concern is that in Utah, to get a concealed weapons permit, you do not have to show proficiency in using a weapon.”

Getting a permit in Idaho does require more rigorous testing. Another key difference between the states is that guns are allowed in Utah college arenas, but won’t be in Idaho. Sprague says the presence of guns makes securing concerts and big games a challenge.

But the main thing Utah law enforcement did to prepare for campus carry was “educate and train officers about the law.” Sprague notes they’ve learned to be discreet when responding to a call about a weapon on campus, since it’s usually someone with a permit to carry. At first, campus police would address the issue in an open hallway, which tended boost tension and invite public criticism. Now, they handle that differently.

“We take them to a more secluded spot, for their own privacy, first of all. And we don’t want to make a big scene,” he says. “You know, our goal is to educate, more than punish somebody. So that’s probably the best advice I could give somebody.” And even those calls are rare, he adds.

Utah Valley University seniors John Allred and Cami Cook agree. They don’t notice people, other than police officers, carrying weapons. “I’m sure that people do, but I’ve never seen anyone,” Cook says.

With 10  percent of Utah residents over the age of 21 now in possession of a concealed weapons permit, it’s a fair bet many people hustling across campus are carrying a gun. But everyone we spoke to said that fact just doesn’t come up. It seems like a non-issue for students and faculty like English professor Doni Jeffrey-Harris:

“I think that you can still give students bad grades,” Jeffrey-Harris says. “I think that the more you have open relationships with students, the more you communicate with them, the more you know who is in your classroom, the more secure you can feel in the long-run.”

Jeffrey-Harris still doesn’t think it’s wise to allow firearms on campus, but after 10 years in Utah without incident, she sums up a common sentiment among the law’s critics. “I would rather them not be on campus. [But] I can live with them being on campus.”

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