INDIANAPOLIS – Another gun battle may be looming at the Capitol, this time involving firearms on campus.
Gun advocates again hope to prevent state colleges and universities from restricting students who want to bring licensed handguns on campus.
A measure in the works would allow students the protection of a gun from menaces lurking on and near campus, advocates say - especially at night.
University officials oppose the Legislature's meddling in their existing policies. The state's two largest schools, Indiana University and Purdue University, have resisted previous attempts to keep them from imposing firearms rules that are tougher than existing state law.
Joe Newport, head of public safety at Indiana State University, said in an email that keeping students safe on campus isn't an easy job.
“I’m certain allowing possession of firearms would make it more difficult," he said.
In recent years, the General Assembly has loosened firearm restrictions and forbidden cities and towns from banning handguns on most public property.
Last year, a bill that would have required K-12 schools to hire armed guards failed after a contentious fight. But legislators did vote to allow adults to keep guns locked in their vehicles in K-12 school parking lots.
A similar measure to ease college campus restrictions died last year.
But Rep. Heath VanNatter, R-Kokomo, who plans to co-author a new version of the bill, hopes it comes up for debate when legislators convene in January.
“It’s a law that makes sense,” said VanNatter. “Law-abiding citizens with licensed handguns should be able to protect themselves virtually anywhere.”
VanNatter, a self-described Second Amendment advocate, predicted that a measure that reaches the House floor will pass.
Indiana is one of 23 states that give universities the discretion to ban firearms on campus. Seven states -- Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin -- have modified those bans in recent years, prompted by legislative action or court rulings challenging the prohibition.
Only Utah specifically singles out colleges and universities as public entities that do not have the authority to ban licensed handguns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Pro-gun legislators hope Indiana will be next.
“Students, especially female students, should be able to carry for their own protection,” said state Sen. Jim Tomes, a Posey County Republican who’s carried bills backed by the National Rifle Association in the past.
Tomes has spoken on the issue on campuses and said he’s found support among students who worry they’ll be targets for predators who know they're unlikely to be armed.
“Anything I can do to help citizens protect themselves from harm is what I’m interested in doing,” Tomes said.
In October, some Indiana State students sought permission to carry licensed handguns, prompted by the shooting of a student in a dormitory stairwell.
The students, members of the NRA-backed Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, asked the Student Government Association to support their efforts to reverse the prohibition of firearms on campus.
Ayrton Ingle, president of the group's ISU chapter, told the student newspaper that campus security can’t provide blanket protection. “As hard as our campus police work, in the end it is up to the individuals who are responsible for their own safety,” he said.
The proposal that Ingle backed would have required students and employees to meet certain guidelines - such as being licensed and completing a firearms safety course - to be allowed to carry on campus.
Tomes said state legislation could do the same thing.
“The bad guys with guns already break the laws,” he said. “This would just allow the good guys to remain law-abiding citizens.”
Officials at the state’s public universities don’t see it that way.
At the ISU campus in Terre Haute, officials are worried about having more guns. Newport, who also serves as the campus police chief, rejects the argument that armed students would deter gun violence.
“A college campus is traditionally a safe place,” he said. “Although possible, the chance of stopping an active shooter or defending yourself with a firearm is remote.”
He also thinks guns and college campuses are bad mix, due to the drinking and horseplay that he calls typical college-age behavior. He worries about gun security, given that theft is one of the most reported crimes on campus.
“The everyday risks far outweigh the chance of someone being in the right spot to safely stop an active threat,” he said.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who teaches at the Indiana University-Bloomington campus, said university trustees should keep control of campus gun policies since they know their institutions best.
Pierce said he is not convinced he’d be any safer in the classroom if guns were allowed on campus.
“Once you introduce guns into the environment, then you have all kinds of opportunities for guns to get used in ways that aren’t good,” he said. “Ways that end up harming people rather than protecting them.”
Tomes, VanNatter and Pierce agree on one thing: If the legislation reaches the House or Senate floors, a contentious debate will ensue.
“Whenever anybody starts talking about guns, there is an immediate emotional response,” Tomes said. “I wish people could set aside all that emotion and just talk about the issue.”