The University System of Maryland is lending its support to a plan to ban guns and other deadly weapons on the state’s public higher education campuses – so long as some exceptions are protected.
Lawmakers are expected to hear the first round of testimony on the proposal – part of a package of gun bills backed by legislative leaders – at a House committee hearing Tuesday.
System officials wanted to make sure the bill gave the presidents of its member institutions enough discretion to make exceptions, and the bill’s sponsors have agreed to amend the legislation accordingly.
“In the past, the concern had always been about off-duty police officers,” said Andy Clark, the system’s assistant vice chancellor for government relations. Since many jurisdictions require officers to carry their weapons when off-duty, the law needs to allow officers who may be attending classes to still do their jobs, Clark said.
The amendment would also make sure Frostburg State University could continue its policy of allowing students to register and store weapons – such as those used for hunting – with university police when they’re on campus.
The law also needs to provide exceptions for the occasional use of items that could be construed as deadly weapons – such as powder-actuated nail guns used for construction, Clark said.
Knives, too, generally fall under the proposed ban, but the amendment would allow culinary students to use those tools of their trade, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, D- Montgomery, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate.
The system’s member institutions — as well as other public institutions such as Morgan State University and St. Mary’s College of Maryland — already have general bans on deadly weapons, but Madaleno said putting those bans into law would make a clearer statement that these items don’t belong on campuses.
“It’s one thing if a campus has a policy,” Madaleno said. “If it isn’t enshrined in law, the general public may not know it.”
While horrific mass shootings on campuses across the country may get a lot of attention, violence on campuses is more likely to arise out of disputes between romantic partners or roommates, Madaleno said.
The bill comes as dozens of states have considered moving in the opposite direction: allowing guns to be brought on campus.
Recently, about one state per year has adopted such a law; proposals to ban guns from campuses are considered far less frequently, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Texas has approved concealed carry on its public university campuses starting later this year, prompting concern from faculty members about their safety in the classroom.
The Maryland proposal would prevent universities from loosening their individual weapons bans down the road, and would show students and their parents that campuses were “gun-free sanctuaries,” said Del. Benjamin S. Barnes, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, who is sponsoring the bill in the House of Delegates.
Keeping guns off of campuses can also reduce the risk of suicide, which is attempted by an estimated 200,000 students per year, Barnes said.
Recent studies show that a little over 1 percent of undergraduate students attempted suicide, according to the nonprofit Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Last fall, an about 20.2 million students attended American colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But restrictions on guns won’t address that problem, said Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association State Liaison for Maryland. “If someone has suicidal ideation, they’re going to make an attempt,” she said, adding that lawmakers weren’t proposing bans on kitchen knives or prescription drugs.
The bill also draws an arbitrary line around college students, who are usually legal adults allowed by federal and state law to own firearms, Alford said. “What is it about that [campus] environment that makes it any different from the environment across the street?” she said.
Young women, a potentially vulnerable population, would also be deprived of a way to defend themselves, Alford said.
Gun-rights advocacy group Maryland Shall Issue also opposes the bill, but declined to elaborate on its objections until after the hearings.