After University of Cincinnati student Trent Amstutz was assaulted by a group of teenagers on the southwest edge of main campus in February, he wondered how the incident would have played out had he been able to legally carry a firearm on campus.
Under Ohio law, Amstutz, a fifth-year engineering student and licensed concealed carry holder, and other concealed carry licensees are not permitted to carry on certain public property including university buildings and campuses.
However, several bills at the state house could change the law to allow concealed carry on college campuses and other prohibited sites. The polarizing topic is drawing mixed responses from law enforcement officials, students, administrators and advocates on both sides of the issue.
“These [current] laws restrict the good guys,” said Ohio House Rep. John Becker, (R – Clermont). “I’m trying to put the good guys on equal footing with the bad guys so nobody has to be a victim or at least you’ll have the opportunity to shoot back. It’s about leveling the playing field.”
Becker, whose district includes UC’s Clermont campus, has sponsored three different bills and cosponsored another bill that would eliminate restricted zones where concealed carry is not permitted.
One of Becker’s bills, house bill 403, would generally allow concealed carry on public property and in publicly owned secure buildings.
The freshman legislator said the issue is all about ensuring the constitutional right to protect oneself.
“The idea of a lot of these gun bills, including [HB 403], is to chip away at those restrictions and restore gun rights in the name of safety,” Becker said.
But local law enforcement officials aren’t certain that allowing concealed carry at UC would reduce the number of crimes.
Since most of the crimes that victimize students are happening off campus where concealed carry licensees can already carry, it’s unlikely that allowing concealed carry on campus would reduce crime, said Capt. Paul Neudigate, Cincinnati Police Department District Five commander. Of the 39 robberies in which a student was a victim in 2013, four happened on campus, according to data compiled by the university.
Also, roughly 60 percent of those students who are victimized are under the influence of alcohol, which disqualifies a licensee from being able to carry at that time, Neudigate said.
“I don’t want to say it doesn’t deserve further merit and looking into, but the facts are, in 98 percent of the cases it wouldn’t have made a difference in any of the student victimization that we have,” Neudigate said.
Allowing concealed carry would likely impact police officers and their ability to respond to a crime, said Jeff Corcoran, interim UC police chief.
“From a police officer’s perspective, the biggest worry with CCW permit holders is how do we tell them apart from the bad guys?” Corcoran said in an email. “In a high-stress situation it is very easy to turn toward a police officer giving you commands with a gun still in your hand, which is a recipe for disaster. We teach officers that if they are in plain clothes or off-duty, the uniformed officer is always ‘right.’ They need to follow their commands, and avoid looking like a threat to the uniformed officer.”
Both Neudigate and Corcoran said the vast majority of concealed carry licensees are law abiding citizens and Neudigate added that he didn’t think allowing concealed carry would make police officers’ jobs “any more dangerous than they already are.”
But firearm advocates are, at the very least, skeptical of Neudigate’s and Corcoran’s claims, as well as other explanations typically made by law enforcement officials.
“If you don’t accept the assertion that crime goes down when people are legally able to carry then I would ask the question ‘why do you think crime is as high as it is around UC when you’re not able to carry?’” said Jeffry Smith, a UC alumnus and firearm instructor and advocate.
Smith, who is planning a firearm-education event for April 12 on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, said even if most of the crime occurs off campus, by prohibiting concealed carry on campus, the law prohibits anyone who might have to cross or step on campus from being able to legally carry.
He said he doubts police have data extensive enough to show how many victims were walking to or from campus. Therefore, it is unclear how large an impact prohibiting concealed carry on campus is having, he said.
“I guess one would have to engage in a real analysis in all these crimes and where they’re happening,” Smith said.
Amstutz, the student who was attacked in February, said by simply allowing concealed carry on campus most criminals would likely think twice about robbing or assaulting a student.
“I don’t know specifically what would have happened differently with my experience but the biggest thing that happens is you don’t get attacked in the first place,” Amstutz said. “The moment the criminals know that you could potentially be armed, they stop attacking. It’s a deterrent. My situation would have been completely different if I had had a gun on me.”
Opponents argue that the make-up of a university possesses too many risk factors — including alcohol abuse and high rates of suicide — to warrant concealed carry.
“It’s something that the vast majority of college presidents and chancellors are all against,” said Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus. “I do understand there are some folks that want it, but we think there’s just too many risk factors at play here.”
While many universities deal with safety concerns, introducing concealed carry is not the solution, Pelosi said.
“If there’s a concern, and I can see it’s a legitimate concern, about safety, then the schools should be looking at ways to improve safety on campus, as opposed to allowing students or faculty to carry,” Pelosi said.
UC has not taken a formal stance on Becker’s bill or the other bill that the university is keeping a distant eye on. Neither of the bills has made it out of its designated house committee.
“We’ve not taken up a position on any of the bills,” said Margie Rolf, associate vice president of government relations, who tracks legislation in Columbus that could have a possible impact on the university. “We’re simply monitoring them at this stage of the game until we get a signal that they are going to move.”
An increasing national, local issue
All 50 states have concealed carry laws in one form or another. Ohio allows residents who have lived in the state for at least 45 days and are at least 21 years old to apply for a concealed carry license. An applicant must meet certain standards and complete a minimum of 12 hours of training with a certified instructor. Applicants found guilty of certain criminal offenses or who have a documented history of mental health issues are not eligible for concealed carry.
Currently, concealed carry licensees must renew their licenses every five years.
According to the National Conference of State Legislators, a bipartisan organization that tracks state legislation, Ohio is one of 21 states that specifically ban concealed carry on college campuses, while 22 states leave the decision up to each individual university. Currently, seven states have statutes requiring universities to allow concealed carry on campus.
Efforts to expand or restrict concealed carry on college campuses drastically increased across the country in 2007 after a mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University claimed 33 lives, according to the NCSL.
“This is one of those issues that over the last couple of years is becoming more and more popular,” said Suzanne Hultin, a policy specialist at the NCSL. “We’re seeing a lot more bills come up and it’s not just college campuses but also K-12 schools and just in general.”
In 2008, 14 states proposed legislation to expand concealed carry in some capacity on college campuses, and two states considered legislation to prohibit concealed carry on campuses. None of those bills passed.
The number of states that proposed legislation to expand concealed carry increased in 2011 to 18, while the number of states considering prohibiting concealed carry remained unchanged at two.
Of the 19 states that considered allowing concealed carry on campuses in 2013, two of the states passed legislation.
Kansas passed a bill creating a provision to keep public institutions from prohibiting concealed carry unless a building has “adequate security measures.” The bill allows institutions to request a four-year exemption from the requirement. Arkansas passed legislation allowing faculty to carry concealed on campus; however, the bill allows individual institutions’ governing boards to disallow concealed carry if they so choose.
None of the five states that considered prohibiting concealed carry on college campuses in 2013 passed the legislation.
In Ohio, the previous three general assemblies have proposed legislation removing restricted areas for concealed carry. None of those bills made it out of the committee it was assigned.
“I definitely am noticing an uptick in the number of bills dealing with concealed carry,” UC’s Rolf said. “I would say that most of the bills would have an impact on UC’s campus simply because we are a public institution and most of the bills deal with public facilities.”
The two current bills are both still in committee. Becker’s bill hasn’t had its first hearing yet, and he’s not sure when it will have its mandatory first hearing. He said his bill likely would not make it out of the house. All the bills not passed expire at the end of the general assembly’s term, in this case Dec. 31.
However, another bill proposed by Rep. Ron Maag (R-Lebanon) could very likely make it out of the house and head to the Ohio Senate, where it would need to be approved as is before Ohio Gov. John Kasich could sign it into law.
Maag’s bill had its third committee hearing in mid-January. The committee hasn’t scheduled a fourth hearing yet, according to his office. Maag is out of town visiting an ill relative and couldn’t be reached for comment.
But Becker said Maag’s bill is receiving a lot of support from gun lobbies.
“If the Johnson bill and the Maag bill are the only two to get signed into law that’s good progress,” Becker said. “I’ll take that and then you know in the next general assembly we’ll work on some more.”
Even if none of the bills pass, they could be reintroduced in the same exact state in the next general assembly, Rolf said, while noting that there are still eight months left in this general assembly and more bills could still be introduced.
The one thing both sides agree on is that the issue is not going away anytime soon.
“When we do have victories they’re temporary,” Pelosi said. “Because we know the issue is going to come up again.”