NASHVILLE — The recent mass shooting at an Oregon community college has Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, looking at relaxing restrictions to allow some state-issued handgun permit holders to go armed on state public college and university campuses.
After a state Senate Higher Education Subcommittee hearing on campus safety issues Thursday, Bell said he is weighing filing a bill to allow faculty and staff with permits to bring their firearms on campus.
"I think we need to give our citizens the best chance possible to defend themselves when that kind of situation comes up," Bell told reporters, noting some of his GOP colleagues agree. "If the Legislature decides this is a good direction to go, I think a start would be to allow employees and staff to carry [firearms]."
That could come with a requirement that campus police or security chiefs be notified, Bell said.
"That would be with permit holders," he said. "I've not put anything on paper yet."
Mike Gregory, director of special events and emergency management at the University of Tennessee, was uncomfortable with allowing people to go armed on campuses.
"We prefer the current legislation," said Gregory, referring to a 2014 Tennessee law passed by GOP lawmakers allowing non-student permit holders to store firearms in their vehicles while on campus. "We feel like the law enforcement officers, the folks who are trained in that area, should be the ones who are able to carry."
He noted that higher education law enforcement officials "believe those are the ones who should be protecting us" and that he thinks "we're as prepared as we can be."
During the hearing, University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents officials outlined some of their emergency response procedures. They described text and email alert systems for students — generalized instructions to students on responses to active shooting incidents such as "run, hide, fight" — special training for their officers, counseling and programs where students and staff can safely forward concerns about someone to appropriate campus authorities.
Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis, a subcommittee member and architect, said he wants to be proactive and put something in place in terms of response by campus police.
Regarding Bell's idea on having handgun-permitted faculty and staff carry on campus, Tate said, "I'm not really into that. I'm not into that legislation, not whatsoever. I really want the professionals to have alternatives and responses in places. Instead of reacting, I want it to be proactive. I want it to be departmental and not us."
Bell said "the idea of having more citizens who are allowed to carry increases, at least in my opinion, the safety measures as well." He said statistics back up his view that permit holders aren't the problem and their presence reduces crime.
State lawmakers several years ago shut down public access to information about gun permit holders. Prior to that, there had been news articles on permit holders who had been charged in shootings.
In the meantime, Bell is considering another bill that would exempt private colleges from provisions in the 2013 guns-in-cars bill. The law now exempts students with permits from storing weapons in their vehicles on campus. Visitors can do so.
"I don't think it's good policy for the state of Tennessee to be telling a private institution whether they should or should not ban guns on campus. If every private institution wants to ban guns, that should be their decision. Not the state's."
Bell drew a distinction between public and private institutions.
"That's more of a philosophical question," he said, noting from a policy perspective, "we should be able to tell" taxpayer-supported institutions "what they do on those campuses, whether it's no guns or allowing every permit holder to carry."
Bell's district includes Lee University in Cleveland, a private institution.
Texas lawmakers this year passed a law allowing permit holders to carry guns on university campuses. It takes effect in 2016. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Texas is the eighth state to enact such a law.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or via twitter at AndySher1.