PHOENIX — Insisting it will make students safer, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to let anyone with a permit to carry a concealed weapon bring it on to university and college campuses, including classrooms and dorms.
The move came as Republican lawmakers on the panel rejected arguments by Michael Thompson, the chief of police of Arizona State University, who told them that SB 1123 is a bad idea.
“I’m here to tell you from first-hand experience that university students make very poor decisions on a daily basis, sometimes hourly basis,'' he said. “Adding guns to an already high-risk environment of alcohol, drugs, overreaction, lack of life experience and immaturity is a very dangerous combination.”
And Thompson, who has been ASU police chief since 2014, said doesn't even take into account mental health issues and students who are considering suicide.
But Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, the sponsor of the measure, said his objections and those of lobbyists for the universities and community colleges ignores what she said is current reality of those ignoring existing law.
“How do you know how many weapons are on campus?” she asked.
Thompson conceded she has “a very good point.”
Rogers pressed on.
The senator suggested a situation where “a potential perpetrator” comes onto a college campus.
“But then I understand that it's legal for fellow students to be carrying,” she said.
“I would be less apt to inflict harm if I knew that other students might be carrying to protect themselves,” Rogers said. “Is that not true?”
“That would be an assumption that I couldn't make,” Thompson responded.
Other Republicans picked up on the theme.
Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, cited a 2015 incident at Northern Arizona University when Steven E. Jones, an 18-year-old freshman, shot four people and severely injured three others in a parking lot on the campus. Originally charged with murder, he later pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and three counts of aggravated assault and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Petersen said that proved there are guns on campuses despite the ban.
“They are being carried by those who do not care about the law,” he said. Firearms are being carried by those who are going to rape people, commit crimes, hurt people.
More to the point, Petersen argued that the results might have been different had SB 1123 been on the books.
“Had those other students been able to defend themselves they probably wouldn’t have been shot,” he said.
But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said that is based on the mistaken assumption that more guns on campuses actually creates a safer environment.
Quezada said he looked up data from Colorado, which has allowed campus carry since laws against it were struck down in 2012 by that state's supreme court.
“The rates of rape actually increased ... and not by small amounts,” he said, up 25% that year and 33% the year after that. “The research from other states with similar laws backs that up, too.”
Yet Quezada said none of that has halted what have become perennial efforts in Arizona to expand who can carry weapons, and where.
“We keep promoting this false narrative that guns are the answer to all of our problems,” he said. “We need to stop portraying this narrative that anybody can be a hero because if they’re armed with a gun in a dangerous situation.”
And Quezada told colleagues this isn’t just about claims about college students and their ability to react in an emergency.
“I don’t trust most of you people if there was a dangerous situation to pull out a gun and be able to save anybody, much less not spill your drink on the dais up here,” he said.
Proponents said this isn’t about allowing just anyone to be armed.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said the legislation is limited to those with a concealed-carry permit. That is available only to those 21 and older — 19 for veterans.
But Jody Liggett who lobbies for the League of Women Voters, pointed out that the requirements to get a CCW permit have been loosened over the years.
“A person can obtain one without training in firearms, weapons or showing proficiency,” she said. “Therefore, to assume that holding such a permit mitigates the danger of guns on campus is wrong.”
Much of the argument for the measure, however, came down to pure numbers.
Thompson acknowledged that he has just 92 officers to cover four ASU campuses with more than 100,000 students. The staffing is similar at the University of Arizona which currently has 53 sworn officers — it actually is authorized 66 but is still looking to hire — for a campus that has about 50,000 enrolled.
But Thompson said there are other safety measures, ranging from the ability of students to get escorts at night to “blue light” emergency call boxes.
Borrelli was unimpressed.
“The police are minutes away — minutes,” he said.
Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, had similar questions, citing a letter he got from a woman working at a community college — he said he did not know which one -- who told him that classes can end as late as 9 p.m.
“She talks about the parking lots she has to cross,” he said. “She talks about the fact that in those parking lots there have been robberies, there have been muggings, there have been rapes.”
Leach said there just isn't the police presence to provide sufficient protection.
But Kristen Boilini who lobbies for community colleges, urged lawmakers to leave the issue to locally elected governing boards.
“All of our college boards work closely with law enforcement and security personnel to ensure that the policies they set protect students,” she said.
Thompson noted that students are not defenseless, even if they cannot carry firearms.
In 2018, facing a demand by some lawmakers, the Arizona Board of Regents agreed to let those on campus carry non-lethal weapons.
That includes things like over-the-counter pepper sprays as long as they are not the same concentration as used by law enforcement. Students, staff and visitors also can have shock devices that can be purchased by the general public as long as they require direct contact with an assailant and do not shoot out electrically charged wires.
The measure still needs approval of the full Senate before going to the House.