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Arkansas college campuses prepare for gun law to take effect

by Aziza Musa | August 20, 2017 at 3:24 a.m.

Don't pack that sidearm just yet.

A new state law that allows enhanced carry in previously forbidden places like bars, churches and college campuses takes effect Sept. 1. But there's a catch: The same law calls for concealed carry permit holders to have enhanced training before taking weapons onto those properties.

And that training has yet to be created.

It'll likely be 2018 before any gun-toters can carry on those grounds, college and university leaders said, because Sept. 1 starts the clock -- the countdown of 120 days that the Arkansas State Police has to design the enhanced training program.

"Quite frankly, it's going to take every bit of that to get it done," said Bill Sadler, a state police spokesman. "There is a learning curve for the state police to get back into the mindset that this is going to change what has existed since 1992."

Creating rules isn't as easy as it sounds: State police have to decide the do's and don'ts of the enhanced training and educate the current concealed carry license instructors before anyone can even earn the enhancement, he said.

And there are still smaller pieces, including reciprocity agreements that allow concealed carry permit holders who earned the license from another state to carry lawfully in Arkansas, and campus safety assessment plans, which can preclude concealed carry at certain locations.

The 120-day period has left public colleges and universities in a wait-and-see mode for the finalized rules. But it hasn't stopped administrators and general counsel from preparing.

As the fall semester begins, the schools are reminding students, faculty and staff that weapons are still prohibited from dormitories or residence halls and can only be stored in locked, unattended vehicles in a public college or university parking lot.

During the legislative session, leaders of colleges and universities had pushed back against what will be Act 562 of 2017. Still, Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, who sponsored the bill, forged on with his goal of making campuses safer.

Knowing that there are no gun-wielding people at colleges and universities -- except for campus police -- "it almost creates the perfect environment for this type of killer," Collins said, referring to a "rampage killer," whom he described as a mass shooter with no warning signs before a turnaround event, such as a termination. "I believe [the new law] will deter and reduce the amount of gun violence in Arkansas."

The new law pairs with Act 859 of 2017, which restricts carrying a concealed weapon at teaching hospitals, day cares, collegiate athletic events and private colleges, bars or churches that choose not to allow concealed handguns.

Collins said the education leaders' concerns were typically twofold: that campus police may not know how to respond in a shooting if there are "good guys with a gun" and that there may be accidental discharges.

"The concealed carry law works in malls and restaurants all over the state, and police forces deal with concealed carry holders all over the state," he said. "Our police are well-trained and know how to handle these situations, and ... Arkansas concealed carry license holders know how to behave.

"The reality is this is a very responsible group."

Accidents "sadly" occur anyway, he said, and there's no guarantee that won't happen.

"In that sense, it's a matter of does benefit outweigh risk," Collins said. "I believe it does."

Some trustees voiced similar concerns with the new law throughout the spring and early summer, when they have typically met in part to renew their schools' option to disallow concealed carry for faculty and staff.

The outgoing Act 226 of 2013 placed in trustees' hands whether to allow faculty and staff who held concealed carry permits to take the weapons onto campus. Each board has opted out annually since that law started.

And earlier this year, one by one, the boards voted to opt out for the last time, for a sliver of time -- a period near the start of the fall semester through Sept. 1.

"The failure to adopt such a resolution could result in additional confusion with regard to the new concealed-carry law as well as allow employees with a concealed-carry permit, who have not completed the additional training to carry a concealed handgun on campus from August 16, 2017, until September 1, 2017," said Christina Madsen, associate vice president of communications, public relations and marketing at the University of Central Arkansas.

Other universities took similar stances: Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia said its board chose to extend its gun-free option "to keep consistency and have only one transition," its vice president for administration and general counsel, Roger Giles, said in a statement.

Some institutions, including Arkansas Tech University, started informational sessions in spring 2017. Many are continuing those communication efforts into the fall semester. Most have also sent out campuswide emails with frequently asked questions on campus-carry rules for the fall semester and beyond.

The state's university systems -- Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas -- also gave their schools some guidance on the matter.

"We have been taking questions and comments from all of our campuses, divisions and units to make sure everyone is on the same page with implementation and other things, such as signage and exemptions," said Nate Hinkel, director of communications for the UA System.

The UA System -- which has five universities, seven community colleges, an academic medical center, a public residential high school and other divisions and schools -- is considering training sessions with campus security officers and is drafting a new systemwide weapons policy, he said.

The policy encourages its entities to create their own rules with campus-specific "exemptions permitting the use and storage of weapons related to the scope of an individual's employment or to regular educational or recreational activities conducted under the supervision of appropriate university personnel."

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which placed information on the new law online at safety.uark.edu, is encouraging its campus community to send any additional questions to feedback@uark.edu, said Mark Rushing, assistant vice chancellor of university relations. UA, too, has conducted campus forums on the topic.

"We learned a lot from the participants in the community discussion, and it's this process of working together to understand all perspectives that's key to our campus transitioning to concealed carry," he said. "One of the things we learned was that we need to convene more of these informational sessions. Message received, we're moving forward with that."

ASU's frequently asked questions listed areas of the Jonesboro campus that will continue to be gun-free zones, including Centennial Bank Stadium, Convocation Center, Cooper Alumni Center, Fowler Center, the Pavilion and Tomlinson Stadium.

"Each of the six locations is covered by a single [Alcoholic Beverage Control] permit (obtained in 2015)," Brad Phelps, the ASU System's general counsel, wrote in an email. "Three of the locations where alcohol is dispensed by the NEA Sports Club (a private entity) are exempted under the law already due to the fact they host collegiate athletic events. To be consistent, each location under the permit will prohibit weapons."

Phelps pointed to Act 859, which states that an establishment where beer, light wine or alcoholic beverages are served on premises -- except for restaurants -- can bar concealed carriers from the site if it either "places a written notice ... or provides notice" against doing so. The location has to be owned by a private entity, it states.

UA-Fayetteville does not have any similar efforts underway, Rushing said.

UCA leases space to a business that serves alcohol, but it is considered a restaurant and cannot ban weapons, Madsen said, adding the university will continue reviewing the specific matter as more information becomes available from state police and the state beverage control.

Phelps noted the coordination between all higher education institutions in enacting policies to comply with the new law.

"I think that was a very good thing to have us all talking about it and making sure we're all consistent in our approach," he said.

Metro on 08/20/2017

Print Headline: Campuses take steps during gun-law wait

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