Full-time employees at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities can now carry handguns on campus under a bill that became law Monday, although without the governor’s signature.
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) returned the bill to the state’s General Assembly on Monday, and in a letter to the speakers of the House and Senate, he explained why he was allowing SB 2376 to become law without his signature.
“I have long stated a preference for systems and institutions to be able to make their own decisions regarding security issues on campus, and I again expressed this concern throughout the legislative process this year,” he said, according to the Tennessean. “Although SB 2376 does not go as far as I would like in retaining campus control, the final version of the bill included input from higher education and was shaped to accommodate some of their concerns.”
The law, which allows full-time employees to carry concealed handguns, protects higher education institutions from monetary liability for handgun use. Those who want to carry guns on campus have to notify law enforcement and have a valid conceal carry permit. According to the Tennessean, handguns can’t be brought into stadiums or gymnasiums, and the law doesn’t allow students to carry handguns on campus.
Faculty and staff also can’t carry concealed handguns in meetings for discussing disciplinary or tenure issues, or into hospitals, according to the Associated Press.
Campuses have become a new battleground in the debate over gun control and access, as mass shootings have prompted legislators in several states in recent years to propose similar laws as that in Tennessee. In 2014, legislators in 14 states introduced bills allowing concealed weapons on campus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some universities have relaxed their rules, such as Liberty University in Virginia, where a ban on firearms in residence halls will be lifted. Proposed rules in Texas would allow concealed handguns in Texas A&M University classrooms and dormitories.
In Tennessee, allowing concealed handguns on public campuses has attracted criticism from University of Tennessee faculty who argued it makes them feel less safe. A poll conducted by UT Faculty President Bruce MacLennan found 87 percent strongly disagreed that “allowing guns on campus is in the best interest of the campus community,” the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. Of the 1,700 faculty members, 42 percent responded to the survey.
“Overall, (the Faculty Senate) thinks the bill is a very bad idea,” MacLennan said, the newspaper reported. Some faculty respondents threatened to leave their jobs should the bill become law.
Student leaders at Middle Tennessee State University and Austin Peay State University also opposed the measure.
“I feel like adding more guns, especially to a place of higher learning, just interferes with the process of being able to learn in a comfortable environment,” Austin Peay’s Student Government Association president, Will Roberts, told the Tennessean. “(I’m) a gun owner and shoot for sport, and it just comes to a place where you have to draw the line on the argument that more guns means more protection.”
But proponents of the bill dismissed such critiques, arguing that allowing concealed handguns would increase campus safety, particularly in light of active shooter situations.
Sen. Mike Bell (R), a sponsor of the bill, responded to comments from the UT poll during a Senate floor debate, saying, “I think some of these people need to take their medication.”
“Maybe this will give UT a chance to hire some conservative teachers if we have a mass exodus of some of these liberals who responded to this,” Bell said. “There’s a few reasonable comments on here, but not many.”
And the House sponsor, Rep. Andy Holt, argued that the measure protects constitutional rights.