GREG HARTON: Feeling disrupted

Gun law unnerves in ‘island of peace’

Posted: January 29, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Kathleen Lehman, a University of Arkansas faculty member at Mullins Library, doodles as UA spokesman Mark Rushing and others answer questions Thursday about implementation of a new law allowing licensed individuals to carry guns on campus legally. Her doodle said "Vote Nov '18."
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Kathleen Lehman, a University of Arkansas faculty member at Mullins Library, doodles as UA spokesman Mark Rushing and others answer questions Thursday about implementation of a new law allowing licensed individuals to carry guns on campus legally. Her doodle said "Vote Nov '18."

Handguns are not welcome on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.

For that matter, it's worthwhile to note, they remain prohibited from the campus for most people.

State Rep. Charlie Collins' legislation creating an "enhanced" concealed handgun permit for Arkansans, however, modifies that prohibition. People who hold a standard concealed carry permit, which has existed for years, can go through eight more hours of training and pay additional fees for the right to carry a concealed handgun on public college campuses in Arkansas.

Last week, at a public session on the University of Arkansas campus, faculty, staff and students asked questions about the law and its impact on their daily lives and responsibilities.

Perhaps in ways that people who don't work on a university campus can never quite fathom, it seemed to me some on the UA faculty and staff view the campus as their oasis, a place of comfort that provides a respite from the "real world." Collins' gun legislation has pierced the veil. In their analysis, the change is an assault by ruffians on a palace of the enlightened.

The issue churns up emotions, perhaps related to pros and cons, but more directly because some who work on campus view the situation as a disruption to, as one employee described it, their "island of peace."

A student asked a direct and pointed question: In other states, have concealed carry permit holders been involved in campus shootings? Associate General Counsel Matt McCoy, among those leading the session, explained that, no, they could find no examples of that. He said other schools have reported accidental discharges, but compared to their populations, the incident rate in that category remains low.

Terry Martin, vice provost of academic affairs, said UA's research of other institutions who faced such changes turned up no dramatic shifts in campus safety.

Attendees asked reasonable questions largely about how faculty and staff navigate their responsibilities in a world where students 21 or older might exercise their right to carry a concealed handgun.

• What if class activities require a separation of students from their backpacks? Answer: It's the legal responsibility of the licensed student to keep his concealed handgun on him or in a bag within reach. It's not the responsibility of educators to modify class requirements to accommodate that student's need to keep his bag close by.

• Grievance or disciplinary hearings may specifically prohibit anyone from having a gun where the hearing takes place. One woman asked if metal detectors would be available. Not part of the plan, she's told. "So it's an honor system?" she asked.

I found the reasoning a little odd. Before Collins' law, what has kept someone from bringing a gun to a grievance hearing? No metal detectors have been employed. It's been an honor system all along. History tells us a law isn't going to stop someone intent on bringing a gun, but concealed carry permit holders have demonstrated their intention to comply with the law by getting the permit.

• In a theater class, in which close physical contact is sometimes required, what should be done if a student becomes uncomfortable that another student might have a concealed handgun? Answer: UA Assistant Vice Chancellor Mark Rushing explained a person with a legal right to carry a handgun can't be compelled to stop just because someone's uncomfortable with it. "Someone may have bad breath or you don't like their cologne," Rushing said. "There are a lot of reasons to feel uncomfortable by another human being."

Indeed, if there was such an allowance on campuses, they would still be gun free.

• Can professors ask if anyone in their class is a concealed carry permit holder? Yes, according to University of Arkansas Police Director Steve Gahagans. "You can ask, but they're not obligated to answer," he said.

McCoy, the legal counsel, told me the UA doesn't advocate faculty and staff ask. "The risk to faculty or administrators in asking that question is that it might be perceived by some as treating someone differently because they are a concealed carry license holder," McCoy said.

So, as I interpreted such feedback, it's little different than a faculty member asking someone's religion. If the person makes an "F" in that class, the fact they were asked creates one opening for them to claim discrimination.

McCoy had another thought: "What benefit does it do you? They may or may not tell you the truth anyway, and you can't do anything about it, other than worry."

Other parts of Thursday's session made it clear some faculty want to do whatever they can to discourage guns on campus. Yes, they were told, a faculty member can tell students it is his or her personal preference that no guns be brought into their classes or office. Beyond a desire to respect such wishes, concealed carry licensees don't have to give such personal preferences any heed.

I found the session interesting. I suspect once the attention to the new law dies down, the campus will not find itself dramatically changed. The process, rules and day-to-day challenges of concealed carry will, in my view, result in very few students willing to go through the trouble. Faculty and staff, with more predictable daily routines, are the more likely candidates to make it work.

An important point everyone needed to be reminded of: Concealed means concealed, so a visible handgun is cause, at least, for concern and a call to university police.

Indeed, in response to one person's comment about her fear of touching anyone's lost or misplaced bag due to the possibility a handgun might be in it, the university police director offered a simple response.

"If something makes you uncomfortable, give us a call," Gahagans told the group.

There is plenty of discomfort at the UA campus. His department's phone may be ringing often.

Commentary on 01/29/2018