Pennsylvania universities face pressure to end bans on firearms

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At first, Edinboro University's director of communications said his school "does not really permit guns on campus," even under its revised weapons policy.

Only after a point-by-point discussion of those rules did Jeffrey Hileman acknowledge in one-word answers this week that "No," there is no language barring someone from carrying a gun in open campus spaces, and "Yes," that represents a change from six months ago.

In a debate about personal safety and Second Amendment rights that is hot with emotion, a university can face anger no matter what it says. So perhaps not surprisingly, some of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities -- under pressure to end campuswide firearms bans -- are choosing their words carefully on an issue that could become a distraction in the week leading up to spring commencement at those schools.

California University of Pennsylvania, one of seven State System schools that no longer bars weapons in open spaces, declined to discuss the matter Tuesday. Spokeswoman Christine Kindl referred inquiries to the State System of Higher Education, whose attorneys set the changes in motion last year by advising those schools that campuswide bans were not legally enforceable.

The lawyers acted after individuals, including at least one student, questioned existing campus rules, officials said.

Kenn Marshall, a State System spokesman, said the top priority of each university remains the safety of students, employees and visitors. He said the policies, even with the changes, still forbid firearms in campus buildings or at university events and are intended "to the extent possible under the law to keep guns off campus."

Along with Edinboro, Cal U and Slippery Rock University, Lock Haven, Millersville, Shippensburg and Kutztown recently amended their policies, Mr. Marshall said.

The changes, made at some schools months ago, attracted limited attention even on the campuses. But in the days after Kutztown changed its policy April 19, word began circulating among faculty and eventually social media, leading to a flurry of inquiries from the public and media late last week.

On Friday, Guido Pichini, chairman of the State System's board of governors, asked schools to postpone any further changes in weapons policies so a task force looking at campus safety can review the matter.

At Kutztown, the revised policy is being hotly debated in dozens of postings on the school's Facebook page.

"It's mind boggling to think that anyone would be against someone defending themselves, and advocate forcing students to be unwilling victims of crime," said a post in support of guns on campus.

Others differed, including one post that read: "I am appalled by this decision ... As a retired teacher and ongoing parent, I find NO acceptable reason for guns on any school campus. Has not the recent events had any impact?"

Still another wryly asked when bulletproof items would be available in the campus bookstore.

Campus police at Kutztown are investigating threatening notes -- including one that said "What scares you more? Guns or death?" -- placed under the office door of Paul Quinn, head of the campus faculty union who earlier asked at a meeting that faculty representatives be allowed to weigh the new policy before it was enacted.

Mr. Quinn said the process on his campus was rushed and now has created unwanted publicity at a time the school is trying to lock in its fall entering class. "You raise this issue now? What's it going to do to our enrollment?" he asked.

Mr. Marshall said there is no indication across the 115,000-student system that the matter is deterring anyone from enrolling.

Edinboro president Julie Wollman said her school's policy spells out only where guns are prohibited, rather than identify any places where they are allowed. She said that while the school cannot prohibit guns in open spaces, her preference has not changed.

"I don't want guns on our campus. I think, actually, that's a common feeling among the [university] presidents," she said.

"We would like to be able to make a decision about what we think is best for our campus," Ms. Wollman said. "We have been told we don't have the liberty to do that."

She said she hopes the State System will rethink its legal interpretation. "We are hoping there is, perhaps, a reconsideration," she said.

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.


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