By Alina Hunter-Grah, Chattanooga, Tenn. —
In early May, Governor Bill Haslam allowed a controversial bill, which enables full time employees of public universities or colleges to carry handguns on campus, to become law without his signature; and as school begins, the controversy is picking up among students and employees alike.
The new law, SB 2376, which went into effect on July 1, is accompanied by an 11 page long safety policy put together by UT to clarify some of the language established by SB 2376 that could be open to interpretation. Before an employee can carry, they must undergo an application process with the University police. Employees must have a valid handgun permit in order to be accepted. Because a background check and training is required for a permit, University police only has to check for the validity of this permit and whether the employee is enrolled in classes. Full time employees cannot carry a gun if enrolled in any class that they have to attend. Employees enrolled in online classes only are permitted to carry.
The safety law also specifies that guns must be kept concealed and cannot be outside of arms reach at any time. Guns are not permitted at any campus event or disciplinary hearings, even by those who have an authorized permit. If an employee is carrying a gun before one of these events, it is recommended that it be secured in the carrier’s vehicle.
University police have received 19 applications for the authorization to carry on campus so far. None of these applications have been denied. All applications and personal files regarding handguns are kept confidential by police.
Police, in addition to complying with the law, are offering voluntary training sessions for the employees who have been approved to carry. This is to combat any issues that might arise with employees carrying guns who wish to “save the day” during a critical situation. Police, during the training, will remind carriers that their guns are to be used only as defense and teach them how police expect the individual to respond in a critical situation.
“This is not an offensive law, this is defensive strictly,” said University Police Chief, Robert Ratchford. “The reason we say this is, because if someone runs out in the hallway with their pistol out, they are going to be perceived as a threat.”
SB 2376 is not the first law of its kind. Several other states allow guns to be carried on public universities as well including Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin.
While the gun law most directly affects University employees, students are in disagreement as to whether the law will create a safer environment or not.
In a poll created by icitizen, an organization dedicated to helping promote social change, over 600 students from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) , East Tennessee State University (ETSU), UTC, University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) and the University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) voted on their opinions of the new gun law. When asked whether the student favored the law or not, 60 percent strongly favored the bill, six percent somewhat favored the bill, four percent somewhat opposed the bill, and 29 percent strongly opposed the bill. When asked whether students were concerned with the ability of the universities to implement programs and policies to keep campuses safe, results showed that 43 percent of students were very concerned, 34 percent were somewhat concerned, 15 percent were not very concerned, six percent was not concerned at all and two percent were unsure.
Benjamin Vega, a junior from Hendersonville, said that he thinks allowing employees to have guns will allow for quicker reaction time in critical situations.
“I feel that the new handgun law adopted by UT schools is a necessary one. Often people get too caught up in whether or not a law is morally good or bad and neglect to understand the practicality and/or necessity of a law. In this day and age, security is becoming more and more difficult to ensure and this law provides a reasonable method of increasing security for the entire campus. Many who oppose the law say they don’t feel safe with firearms on campus but fail to look at the requirements and regulations for those that would carry such firearms,” Vega said. “As a student walking around campus, I can say with certainty that there are a lot more professors on campus than law enforcement officers and they are constantly everywhere on campus, whether its in their respective buildings or just walking around. Because of this, armed professors would be able to respond anywhere on campus to an assailant almost instantaneously. Having armed professors ensures a much greater range of security on a campus which is completely open to the public. We are not a gated community. We are vulnerable, however unfortunate a truth as that may be.”
However, some such as Blake Kitterman, a sophomore from _____ and SGA senator, said that he feels this creates a more hostile environment.
“The General Assembly opening up guns to campuses poses a threat not only to students, but to faculty and nearby citizens. UT campuses are not even able to effectively enforce the current smoking policy, so I’m genuinely afraid of how renegade students will push the envelope with this new law,” Kitterman said. “We are militarizing through weaponry rather than through intelligence.”
For those concerned with the law, it is recommended to reach out to the local legislation to voice their opinions.