Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 25, 2009

Campuses center stage in weapons debate

BY ART BUKOWSKI

TRAVERSE CITY -- Jessica Cichowski doesn't understand why someone would want or need to carry a firearm on a college campus.

Cichowski, 20, an engineering student at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, was concerned to hear about a proposed state law that would allow some of her fellow students to carry concealed weapons.

She worries that guns on campus could create safety problems and serve as a troubling distraction.

"It would just make me nervous knowing the guy sitting next to me in philosophy class has a gun in his pocket," she said.

State Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, is sponsoring a bill that would prevent the state's public universities, colleges and community colleges from banning concealed weapons on campus.

A similar bill sponsored in part by State Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, seeks to roll back the state's own restrictions on where concealed weapons can be carried.

Schmidt said his bill is intended to clear up confusion and make the state legislature the sole authority on where weapons can be carried. But NMC officials and some students staunchly oppose the notion of guns in a learning environment.

"I just don't think it's a good idea to have people on college campuses walking around with concealed pistols," NMC president Tim Nelson said.

'Ultimate authority'

Lawmakers previously barred local governments from passing ordinances that restrict firearms, and Schmidt wants to apply the same law to public universities and colleges.

"The question is who ultimately determines where you can or cannot carry," Schmidt said. "My view is the state legislature should be the ultimate authority on that ... not local colleges."

State law currently bans the carrying of concealed weapons inside college classrooms, dormitories and sports arenas. Schmidt said his bill wouldn't change that, but he won't rule out dropping those restrictions, either.

A separate, Republican-sponsored state Senate bill that seeks to allow concealed weapons in college classrooms and dormitories also recently was introduced. McManus, who has a concealed weapons permit, is a sponsor of that bill.

Schmidt, a member of the National Rifle Association, said his bill's primary goal is to make sure people with concealed carry permits don't have to worry about facing arrest as they cross into certain areas.

"The main purpose of it is to clarify the law and put everyone on the same playing field ... I just want to make sure responsible, law-abiding gun owners know what the law is throughout the state of Michigan, and that they don't get caught up in one difference here and one difference there," he said.

Nelson said NMC and other colleges often impose rules stricter than state law -- NMC has a complete campus alcohol ban for students of all ages, for instance -- and he's concerned about politicians usurping a college board's ability to set guidelines for student conduct.

And Nelson disagrees the bill will clear up confusion about where students can carry guns. NMC's total ban on possessing any weapons on campus is easier for both the college and students, he said.

Schmidt's bill, combined with McManus', could create a dangerous setting on campus, Nelson said.

McManus said she believes allowing concealed weapons in dorms and classrooms is just a "small step" to add to the places such weapons can be carried.

"I've always been a pro-gun advocate ... I've been an advocate that if you are a law-abiding citizen, you should be able to carry," she said.

'No reason to have a weapon'

Students and staff at NMC expressed concern about safety issues and distractions that could arise if guns are allowed on their campus.

Scott McNees, a second-year culinary arts student, thinks the legislation could lead to trouble.

"If guns are more prevalent, it ends up being one of those things where maybe (people) are quicker to use a gun," he said.

Even if a person with a gun doesn't intend to harm anyone, the weapon could fall into the wrong hands, McNees said.

"If a person has a gun, you don't know how secure it is," he said.

Dan Mills, of Maple City, isn't a fan of the proposed legislation.

"We are protected without having to protect ourselves," he said, referring to police. "I don't feel like I've ever been in any type of danger that I'd have to carry any type of concealed weapon."

Cichowski, who studied with Mills in NMC's Osterlin Library, agrees.

"I just don't really see the point of carrying concealed weapons at school, other than maybe protecting yourself from other students with concealed weapons," she said. "Obviously, you're not going to go hunting on campus; there's no reason to have a weapon."

Like McNees, Mills is concerned that adding guns to the mix could cause problems.

"We're all human beings, and dumb mistakes are made; accidents happen," he said. "Sometimes accidents happen with guns just because they're present.

Jim Watson is an adjunct professor of English composition at NMC.

"I would be absolutely opposed to it on any college campus," he said. "There's a volatile mix of students of varying backgrounds, emotional strengths and weaknesses, and pressures."

The presence of guns also poses a risk to instructors, Watson said. A teacher's message, tact or tone could anger a student, he said.

"Who knows what could set someone off," he said.

Ryan Wright expects to graduate soon from NMC's police academy. He said he respects a citizen's right to carry a weapon, but he doesn't believe that right should extend to college campuses.

"If somebody gets mad and flies off the handle, who's to say they don't pull it out and shoot it?" he said.

Schmidt said past school shootings, including the 2007 Virginia Tech incident, happened at schools with gun bans, so restricting guns won't necessarily prevent violence.

"As long as people are responsible gun owners (who) secure it and follow state law, that is not the problem," he said.

McManus said those who receive a concealed carry permit shouldn't pose a risk.

"Anyone who has a legal, valid CCW permit has to go through very rigorous testing and practice," she said.

Staff Writer Brian McGillivary contributed to this report.