The Casper College Board of Trustees voted Tuesday night, Feb. 21, to oppose House Bill 136, which would allow concealed carry of guns on state college campuses. The vote was 4-2, according to the office of college President Darren Divine. On Thursday, the state Senate defeated the bill 13-17 on a roll call vote. There was no debate on the bill after it was explained by Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R, SD-6, Cheyenne), a well-known gun advocate. — Ed.
The One important factor is being ignored in the controversy over allowing concealed carry of guns at the University of Wyoming and community college campuses: none of the institutions asked for the law to be changed.
In fact, representatives for all but one recently signed an op-ed opposing House Bill 136 that has been printed in newspapers throughout the state. Casper College, the only holdout, hasn’t taken an official position on the bill, but that hasn’t kept some college officials from letting people know where they personally stand.
“Early on I had agreed to sign on to it, in principle,” Casper College President Darren Divine said of the op-ed, which was circulated the week of Feb. 6 to college presidents. “Then I talked to the board and they said we haven’t taken a position, so maybe we shouldn’t take one.”
“Historically the college has found it difficult to support campus carry,” Divine said.
For many years, dating back to his earlier professional career in Nevada, he’s opposed allowing guns on campus, Divine said. That’s what he told the board when he interviewed to become president at Casper College, he said.
“My sense is that the majority of the board is of that opinion,” Divine noted. “But the letter was more a question of timing. There was talk about taking a vote, but in order to do that they’d have to be all sorts of notification to the media and the public. It just didn’t make sense to try to do that.”
The community college still has a chance to make a difference in the debate, which is upcoming in the Wyoming Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved HB136 by a 4-1 vote after the House overwhelmingly approved it, 40-19. The bill’s fate now rests in the hands of the Senate.
Divine acknowledged rumors at Casper College that claimed he was “muzzled” by the board. He said it didn’t happen.
“Was I told I can’t sign it and if I did I’d lose my job?” Divine asked. “Oh, heavens no, not anything of the sort. Was I instructed that maybe we should not sign it because there was not a consensus? Yes, I was.”
Matt Loucks, president of the board, confirmed what Divine said. “We didn’t find out about the op-ed until the day before they wanted to submit it to the Legislature,” Loucks recalled. “Dr. Divine approached me personally and asked me if the board wanted him to sign it. In the past we’ve taken no stance on it as a college.”
College has no-weapons policy
The college has a 2014 policy that bans weapons on campus. It allows a few exceptions, but states, “Requests for a long-term, ongoing, or concealed weapon exception will not be considered.”
“There’s really two issues here,” Divine said. “The 2014 policy is written based on the current law, which does not allow campus carry. It would need to be rewritten if the bill that’s being discussed now passes.”
Loucks campaigned for re-election on the issue last year, when he told the Casper Star-Tribune, “I support ‘right to carry’ on campus. It is a freedom issue for me.”
But Loucks said he isn’t comfortable talking about his personal opinion now, because he doesn’t want anyone to confuse his beliefs with the college’s position. “I can’t speak for the rest of the trustees,” he said.
Divine said while he was in Nevada he had a concealed weapons permit. “I am a huge Second Amendment supporter,” he said. “Having said that, I think that concealed weapons on college campuses adds a tension that becomes very difficult to manage.”
It strains credulity to think the college’s board of trustees has not even discussed the concealed carry controversy before this.
This is hardly the first time concealed carry at schools and colleges has been a major issue throughout Wyoming. UW and the other six community colleges all have official policies against concealed carry. In 2015 a House bill to allow concealed carry permit-holders to possess weapons at all public schools and college campuses was defeated by the Senate. The current bill takes public schools out of the equation, but it’s still an issue because the UW campus is home to a daycare center and the Lab School, which has K-8 students.
Several speakers at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s meeting Wednesday pointed out that being on a college campus where guns are permitted would be a problem for the two public schools, which are gun-free zones under federal law.
Others pointed out that the UW Faculty Senate, Associated Students of the University of Wyoming and UW’s Athletic Department oppose HB136. A new policy will allow beer to be sold at UW athletic games beginning in the next fall semester. Chris Boswell, UW’s vice president for governmental and community affairs, said alcohol and emotions that can run high at athletic events would be a dangerous mix with guns on campus.
“We’ve all witnessed the very high emotions that occur as a result of activities at a sporting event, or rotten calls by an official,” Boswell testified when a House committee considered the bill.
While alcohol is not served at Casper College games, it does not make sense to allow concealed weapons to be carried at any community college’s athletic contests. All it should take is one visit to a close college game to conclude that emotions run too high to take the risk that everyone would remain reasonable and clear-thinking.
If there’s any campus in the state that should be wary of allowing concealed guns, it’s Casper College. In 2012 a 25-year-old man with a crossbow entered a classroom and killed his father, the class instructor, and then stabbed himself to death. Before that homicide the man killed his father’s girlfriend with a knife outside his father’s house.
People on both sides of the campus-carry issue frequently mention the tragedy to show why they believe they’re right. Supporters of HB136 say if people in the classroom had been armed, they could have dispatched the killer right away. Opponents say more guns would likely have led to more deaths as students were caught in the crossfire.
Will Robinson, a biology instructor at Casper College, said in his classes students talk about contentious issues every single day, including abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and religion.
Instructor raises questions
“These are very emotional topics and we discuss them openly, without rancor — I try to be very clear about that,” Robinson said. “Just the idea that someone might have a gun would change the whole tenor of the discussion. People would be unwilling to talk.”
Robinson said even many of the gun advocates he talks to on campus don’t favor open or concealed carry at the college. “They say, ‘You don’t know if a person carrying a gun is trained, and how nervous they will be in a violent situation,'” the instructor said. “I think anyone would be nervous.”
“When security arrives, how are they supposed to determine who the bad guy is if there are several people with guns?” Robinson asked. “How are they supposed to know?”
The Casper College Board of Trustees meets in its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21. A work session will begin at 4 p.m., followed by the regular meeting at 7 p.m. Asked if concealed carry on campus will be discussed then, Divine said, “It very well may come up in executive session.”
Loucks, though, said there are currently no plans to do so. State law allows only litigation, real estate purchases, and personnel issues to be discussed in executive session.
If the board fails to discuss the bill then Loucks wins the day in support of concealed carry via inaction, no matter the views of the other trustees.
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The board should discuss the issue publicly — not behind closed doors in an executive session. The college’s students, its faculty and staff, and the Casper community deserve to know where the elected members of the board stand.
If the board makes a decision, Casper College officials still have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue in Cheyenne before the full Senate begins working on the bill.
If the board decides to go on record as opposing campus carry, it would show senators just in time that UW and all seven community colleges are united in their opposition to HB136.
That would be a very valuable lobbying point, particularly against a bill that promotes a terrible idea that not a single one of Wyoming’s higher-education institutions wants to see: students and others carrying guns on their campuses.