Wanting more time, State System puts off vote on Pennsylvania university weapons policy

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A vote to create a weapons policy covering Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities that was to occur as soon as Jan. 23 has been postponed indefinitely to allow more information-gathering and input from the public, officials said today.

Word of the delay came this morning as the State System of Higher Education convened a hearing in Harrisburg, streamed live online, for the purpose of gauging public sentiment about the controversial policy and better informing the system’s board of governors prior to their anticipated vote.

The policy, as recommended by a State System task force, would prohibit offensive weapons including firearms from buildings, sporting and outdoor events plus all other “sensitive areas” across the 14 universities that include the Western Pennsylvania campuses of California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities.

But even before the first speaker was introduced, State System Chancellor Frank T. Brogan acknowledged that given the range of sentiments on a topic that nationally has sparked controversy and legal battles, the system needed more time to evaluate its proposal.

The vote “will not be in January,” State System spokesman Kenn Marshall later confirmed in an email. “No date (is) scheduled at this point.”

State System officials have said they hoped to have such a policy in place by the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

The State System has about 112,000 students.

The weapons proposal has drawn strong reaction from both gun rights advocates on and off the campuses who feel the policy is too restrictive, as well as other individuals and groups who believe the schools should be kept weapons-free.

Both sides during this morning’s hour-long hearing seemed unified in this: Their assertion that the policy as drafted is fatally flawed.

In written testimony submitted to the hearing, John Lee, president of the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association, said studies do not support the notion that creating additional “gun-free” zones improves safety.

“Common sense, if such a thing exists in today’s “political correct” society, would also speak to the fallacy of “Gun Free Zones,” he wrote. “If you were to plan to murder a large number of people, where would you go to do the “dirty deed”? Need I answer that question?”

He said “a criminal or mentally deranged individual either will not, or is not capable, of obeying those restrictions.”

John Haller, a member of the Pennsylvania chapter of Students for Concealed Carry, wrote that his group sees the State System proposal as another example of policy driven by emotion, misperceptions and cultural bias.

“The notion that banning lawfully carried firearms on college campuses results in a safer environment relies on two naive leaps of faith,” he wrote.

“The first is that disarming law abiding students how are capable and willing of carrying firearms for self defense will somehow make students safer as a whole,” he said. “The second, of course, is that criminals or others determined to commit violent acts would actually care what the regulation said.”

Those arguing for an outright university ban, among them faculty, students and groups advocating against gun violence, said the policy is unenforceable and so vaguely written it could invite the very court challenges the system hoped to avoid by allowing guns in open spaces including parking lots.

They said the presence of weapons could further escalate confrontations and is not advisable in settings where alcohol and youth are in abundance. One asked if metal detectors in campus buildings would be installed.

Steve Hicks, a professor and president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said the educational dynamic changes when a professor suspects a student in class may be armed.

He said campuses “are filled with minors who are supposed to be protected from the dangers” of weapons, including high school students in advanced placement programs and those attending summer camps and other events.

“We’re also concerned that after feedback from the faculty and students that the board of governors is still considering a policy that would create a dangerous learning environment,” he said.

“The only acceptable policy is one that bands the carrying of all guns in al areas unless by a security officer or authorized personnel,” he added.

“The myth that an armed campus community will be safer must be rejected for what it is: a ploy by the gun lobby to expand the right to carry concealed firearms into sensitive areas,” wrote Shira Goodman, . executive director of CeaseFire Pa., a coalition of mayors, police chiefs, faith leaders, community organizations and individual Pennsylvanians against gun violence.

About two dozen attended the hearing in the State System’s Harrisburg headquarters. Another 200 or so viewed online, according to system official.

A number of State System universities had outright campus bans, even in open spaces such as walkways, but modified the rules after attorneys for the State System in 2011 advised those schools that outright bans were not legally enforceable.

The lawyers offered their advice after individuals, including at least one student, challenged existing campus rules, officials said.

About half the State System schools, including Edinboro, California and Slippery Rock universities, modified their policies to ones closer to what is now proposed.

The changes on some campuses drew little notice. But after Kutztown University altered its policy April 19, a social media buzz led to inquiries from the public and from national news outlets. Within days, State System board chairman Guido Pichini asked system schools to make no further changes until a task force could explore the matter as part of a wider security review.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. Twitter: @BschacknerPG. First Published January 9, 2014 11:24 AM

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