Legislators are determined to pass a law that will allow employees, staff, and faculty who are permit holders to carry guns on all public college and university campuses. All state post-secondary institutions are overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The legislation has been opposed by every stakeholder – campus police, law enforcement, college presidents, the Tennessee Board of Regents, student government associations, and citizens.
In fact, the only organization in support of the bill is the National Rifle Association.
Last Wednesday, the bill (HB1736/SB2376) was slated to be heard in the 9:00 meeting of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee. As the meeting dragged on, HB1736 was bumped to the 3:00 afternoon meeting of the Subcommittee. (Meeting times vary at this time of year as committees work to wind up their calendars).
The Subcommittee got started at 3:00pm. A lengthy discussion on a forfeiture bill went on for an hour and half. Following the vote on that bill, the Subcommittee members took a 30 minute recess to eat pizza. Finally, it was time to discuss HB 1736. Representative Andy Holt, the bill sponsor, presented the bill. There was a brief discussion, and the question was called (meaning a motion was made to vote). The bill was passed along party lines, with Representatives Beck and Jones voting no.
Another unrelated bill was presented, discussed and voted on. Then, Subcommittee Chairman Coley made an announcement. Somehow during the debate on HB 1736, the committee had “forgotten” to call three expert witnesses -two campus police chiefs and the General Counsel of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
The two police chiefs had driven in from their campuses in both east Tennessee and west Tennessee the night before. They had been patiently sitting in that committee room since 9:00am and only after the vote were they given an opportunity to speak.
Chairman Coley notes that “in our rush to judgment” on the bill, they’d just forgotten about these folks, even though they’d been sitting in the committee room for close to 8 hours.
The two police chiefs provided extraordinarily compelling testimony. Between the two of them, they have well over 70+ years of experience in law enforcement. Video excerpts of each of their testimony are below as is a transcript of their remarks.
First up was Bruce Harber, Chief of Police and Vice President of Administration at the University of Memphis.
41 years of law enforcement experience, including 25 with the Memphis Police Department and 16 in campus law enforcement. He’s also the former commander of the Memphis Police Training Academy.
I am speaking not just for the University of Memphis but on behalf of all 46 of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) schools. I’m also the Chair of the Campus Safety and Security Task Force.
The Task Force has gone on record as opposing the legislation.
TBR has one explicit priority and that’s student success and we feel like we have to provide a safe and healthy environment to meet that goal.
I’ve been in law enforcement for 41 years now. 25 years with the Memphis Police Department and the last 16 in campus law enforcement.
Shortly after Columbine in 1999, I was one of the early trainers to begin training police officers in west Tennessee how to respond to high risk incidents and by high risk incidents, I’m talking about situations like active shooter events.
Several of us [TBR schools], University of Memphis included – our crime rate is about 2 – 2 1/2 times below the national average. And I’m not just talking about campuses but the overall national average. And, we think that is largely because we do not allow guns on campus. And, again, therefore we oppose additional guns on campus unless they are held by highly trained police officers.
Mass public shootings are rare on campuses.
If this legislation passes, we think that faculty will be the most vulnerable in a classroom, whether they carry or not, because they’d be the only person in there with carry options. There are some experts who will tell you that one of the active shooter mindsets is to take out the first possible threat – be it a police officer or security guard, or whoever it might be.
I’m not here to criticize the vast majority of permit holders who are law-abiding – but they are not infallible.
Of those 29 cases, two occurred in Tennessee. I won’t go into the details unless you need them but one was in 2010 in Cheatham County, there was one in 2012 in Powell. And, then outside of Tennessee, one of the most noteworthy was in 2013. A Texas-issued permit holder shot and killed 12 people then himself at the Washington, DC Navy Yard. He also had a prior permit from the state of Virginia.
The effect on the campus environment is that we think weapons on campus may result in more frequent lockdowns, disruptions to the academic mission, and may adversely impact student success.
Under the current structure, if someone is seen carrying a weapon on campus, police are notified to respond, the campus more than likely wil be put on lockdown, and emergency notifications, which are federally required, are sent.
If faculty and staff are allowed to carry, we have some questions:
How will others know when to report firearms incidents to the police?
How will police need to respond? Will they do that as if it is an emergency situation? Lockdown the campus and issue a Clery Act-required timely warning?
And, then, the question is raised- what about our 5 community colleges and TCATS [colleges of applied technology] where they have no police officers or armed security? Who will enforce any violations if only faculty and staff can be armed?
One thing in particular that concerns me is that more armed people on our campuses will change our responses to threats involving weapons and active shooters.
As I’ve mentioned, I have a long training resume in police training. I was actually the commander of the Memphis Police Training Academy at one point. Prior to Columbine in 1999, we would secure and call for SWAT. That’s the primary reason it took 4 hours and 11 minutes before an officer entered Columbine.
Under current law, the only person other than law enforcement that would be armed is the intruder. With faculty and staff being armed, responding officers will have to secure each weapon and person they encounter before moving forward.
Just a couple of quick quotes:
At the 2013 gathering of the International Chiefs of Police in Philadelphia, the US Attorney general:
“Urge police to react more quickly when confronted by an active shooter and to engage the shooter as quickly as possible.”
And, following is an excerpt from a 2013 Police Magazine article written about two months after the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred.
“During an active shooter event, you are dealing with a brutal equation. Time taken by first responders equals casualties. One of the largest body counts from an active shooting incident so far is the Virginia Tech University shooting in 2007. Depending on which ‘after action’ report you read, the attackers shot an average of eight people ad killed two every two minutes. We have to get in quickly and end the killing.”
Today, under our current practices, the first officer’s role is to move toward the threat and at least keep the threat contained. Encountering armed people and securing them along the way will add significant time to the goal of rapid response. Our two minute seam times will be of little value if we can’t get to the area without delay where people might be in harm’s way.
A consequence of this legislation is we don’t really know if conceal carry permits on campuses will produce the desired effect of preventing or stopping infrequent mass shooting events. But, what we do know is law enforcement tactical responses to potential armed threats will be adversely affected.
I and one of my colleagues at Roane State have reached out to our local FBI trainers. They agree we will no longer be able to follow the National Model developed by the FBI which is the first officer goes towards the sound of the threat. This will drastically slow down our responses when literally every second matters.
In closing, under the current law, our police officers have a clear response plane. They know what to do immediately.
If this legislation passes, it will put our responding police officers in even more challenging situations involving life and deaths decisions.
As a campus police chief, I am responsible for everyone’s safety on campus, including the officers. I am here today because I take the charge seriously and personally and passionately.
Next up was John Edens, Chief of Police at Northeast State Community College. Chief Edens is a 38-year veteran of law enforcement, former deputy sheriff, former probation and parole officer, military police officer, and former combat commander of MP units, and for the last 14 years, a campus police chief.
I’m ending my career in law enforcement – I’m in my last 3-4 years. I’ve spent 38 years in law enforcement. At the county level, I was a deputy sheriff. I’ve world at the federal level as a military police officer. I’ve word in CID units. I’ve commanded combat support MP units. I’ve worked as a provost marshal, chief of police in communities. I’ve worked as a probation and parole officer and for the last 14 years, I’ve been a campus police chief. So, I’ve got broad experience. I’ve worked in tactical environments. I know how to train. I know what it’s like to be in combat situations and I’ve trained like that my entire life and that’s the perspective I come from with this bill.
I concur with everything Chief Harber said. I reviewed his notes and I agree with everything he said.
A couple of things I’d like to highlight:
What concerns me about this bill is just because you have a gun carry permit, it does not make you qualified to act in a stressful situation in a confined environment. You’ve got a classroom with 25-30 students. You’ve got someone with a gun in a closed space, high stress…There have been studies and as a matter of fact, there was an ABC show that conducted a study on this. And what they found was -it was more of a danger than an asset to have someone with a gun in a situation like that.
You need to leave situations like that to what I would call “the professionals” – people that are trained to do that.
People with gun permits simply do not have the training. And my concern, I’ll be totally frank with this committee, is in one direction- my concern is for the safety of the students, staff, and faculty on all the campuses across the TBR and more particularly at Northeast State Community College.
And, I can tell you – the bottom line is – if this bill passes, our campuses will be less safe.
What really concerns me, too is – I work with eight police officers and it’s my duty as Chief of Police- I ask them and the state of Tennessee asks them to put their life on the line every day. It’s my job to make sure that they have the training and experience to carry out their jobs.
This will make their jobs more dangerous. Bottom line.
Lastly, Mary Moody, General Counsel for the Tennessee Board of Regents addressed the committee.
“I agree with both police chiefs that arming faculty and staff is not a good idea.”
She says that she worked with the bill sponsors on an amendment to address certain exposures to liability.
Moody notes the committee’s reluctance to pass a bill discussed earlier in the hearing that would allow community corrections officers to carry guns because the corrections officers would not be POST-certified. She points out that none of the faculty and staff who will be carrying guns on campus have been POST-certified.
“They’re just average citizens who are permit holders with no special training. We’re concerned about their reactions in critical situations like active shooters.”
“What I’m really concerned about that’s more likely to happen which is an accidental discharge, the stealing of someone’s guns they’ve brought to campus.”
Moody notes that if passage of the ill is inevitable, the amendment which addresses liability should offer the TBR schools some protection from lawsuits in the instance of an accidental shooting or someone killed or injured by a permit holder’s guns.
So, there you have it. NRA-backed legislators are lining up to vote for a bill that campus security experts say will make campuses less safe, will put law enforcement officers at risk, and will delay first responders from containing a would-be active shooter.
After hearing from the police chiefs and Ms. Moody, Representative Beck suggested that the committee reconsider its vote. It was quickly pointed out to him that only the prevailing side could request a re-vote to which Beck said: “Well, I’m on the morally prevailing side”
Sadly in our legislature, that doesn’t get you very far.