The American Bar Association’s Resolution Concerning Guns on College Campuses

  • Date:
  • August 25, 2023

This guest post does not necessarily represent the views of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.

Earlier this year, the American Bar Association adopted Resolution 603, a policy resolution about permitting or banning guns on college campuses. Resolution 603 was a proposal from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Gun Violence, which in the past has proposed model legislation or advocated for specific firearm regulations. The Standing Committee’s publications are an under-appreciated resource for policymakers and researchers in the field of firearms policy, as they provide extensive background and comprehensive citations to state statutes on specific topics related to gun laws.

The American Bar Association itself exerts significant influence over our legal system – not only through its role in the selection and vetting of federal judges and its promulgation of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, but also through its advocacy on controversial policy issues and model legislation. (For the ABA’s own overview of its efforts and impact on many fronts in our legal system, see the ABA’s 2022 Impact Report; for a positive look back at the ABA’s accomplishments, see here; for critiques, see here and here).

Resolution 603, adopted by the ABA House of Delegates at its midyear meeting in February 2023, urges state and local governments to enact laws and regulations banning guns on college campuses, or at least to permit higher education institutions to restrict the presence of firearms on their own campuses. The Report that accompanied Resolution 603 mentions that 16 states and the District of Columbia “have effectively prohibited concealed carrying of guns on campus,” and provides citations for each of the relevant state statutes. Two states, Colorado and Utah, allow concealed carry permit holders to have guns everywhere on public college campuses in those states. An additional twelve states permit guns in certain areas on public college campuses: Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The report sets forth several arguments in support of banning guns completely from college campuses. First, college students are more at risk for suicide than most other segments of the population, and access to firearms substantially increases both the likelihood of a suicide attempt and the likelihood that a suicide attempt will be fatal (the footnotes cite many sources to support these propositions about the association between firearm access and suicide). Second, college campuses already have an unfortunate prevalence of interpersonal violence, such as sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and easy access to firearms escalates the frequency and severity of such violence. Third, the increased presence of firearms on campus is likely to raise the incidence of other campus crimes, accidental shootings (especially on campuses with widespread alcohol and drug abuse), and thefts of firearms (college students are generally not careful about safe storage of weapons).

An additional argument in the report is the concern about the social atmosphere on college campuses, even apart from increases in campus shootings. “Forcing guns onto college campuses also inhibits the free exchange of ideas in the classroom by making students and faculty feel less safe to express their views,” the report argues. The presence of firearms can have a chilling effect on the free expression of ideas, especially ideas that are controversial. Even when there are no overt threats or brandishing, knowing that many fellow students passionately disagree with certain viewpoints – and that an unknown number of those students are armed – can be intimidating for those who would like to express contrarian views. The report cites polls that reveal most students and faculty prefer not to have guns permitted on campus.

The report concludes by arguing that campus gun bans are permissible, even under the Supreme Court’s new analytical rubric set forth in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. The writers note Justice Kavanaugh’s concurrence in Bruen which observed, “[n]othing in [the Court’s] opinion should be taken to cast doubt on . . . laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools.”

Anticipating the objection that guns reduce crime by enabling students to defend themselves, or by deterring would-be assailants, the report argues, “There is no credible evidence to suggest that students carrying guns will reduce violence on college campuses. Instead, evidence suggests that permissive concealed gun carrying generally will increase crime and place students at risk.”

I agree with the ABA’s position, and I am thankful that I teach at a private institution that still bans firearms in its facilities, even though the public schools in my state must allow guns on their campuses, at least in certain areas. My law school is a downtown commuter school, though – there is no student housing, no attached parking garage, and the entire facility has only one entrance by which students and faculty may enter, under the watchful eye of the front desk security guards. The question is admittedly more complex when a campus includes student residences and long-term/overnight parking for student vehicles. Even at my institution, I recognize that the ban does not prevent, in any absolute sense, someone with a concealed firearm from entering the building (we do not have metal detectors and student bags are not searched, unlike the courthouses in town); there is always some risk that an active shooter could get inside the building. But I think the ban induces most students not to bring guns to school, and this reduces the chances of accidental shootings, thefts of firearms, impulsive suicides on campus, or that occasional altercations between students will escalate into a fatal incident.