College Students Are Adults With Constitutional Rights

Two groups supporting gun rights recently held a forum in Washington in an attempt to convince lawmakers to allow college students to carry firearms on the campuses of universities, most of which prohibit students from keeping them at their side or in their dorms. Since private universities are not bound by the Constitution and may institute whatever policies they deem proper (no matter how bad), the debate turns to whether public universities infringe on the rights of gun-owning students. Recent Supreme Court precedent suggests that they do — responsible, law-abiding college students do not check their Second Amendment rights at the gates of the ivory tower.

The issue of gun ownership on college campuses is particularly salient because college students are natural targets of crime. They are typically above-average in income, they frequently walk place-to-place deep into the night on dark and deserted streets, they are not necessarily natives of their college town and might be unfamiliar with their environment, and — more to the point — they are prohibited from carrying weapons that could be used to effectively defend themselves from attack. University students, particularly women, are at a heightened risk of violent crime because they are barred from carrying a gun that could deter or counter an attack.

Public universities have no authority to ask students to sacrifice their right to self-defense as a condition of enrollment. As government institutions, they are bound by constitutional guarantees such as those allowing students to speak and worship freely. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court affirmed the Second Amendment right for individuals to bear arms for the purpose of self-defense when it struck down D.C.’s blanket ban on the ownership of handguns. In McDonald v. City of Chicago, the court struck down a similar law in Chicago, confirming that neither the federal nor state governments may enact blanket restrictions that prohibit citizens from owning and possessing firearms.

The court in Heller explicitly noted that the Second Amendment is still subject to reasonable restrictions, such as “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.” A city is not allowed to prevent responsible, law-abiding adults from owning and possessing handguns in their homes, but schoolhouses are allowed to prevent the same people from carrying guns down their hallways. In light of this restriction, there is little reason to consider public universities as “sensitive places” for firearms. 

Under any reasonable analysis, a public university is more like a city than a schoolhouse. Many public universities have student populations in excess of 30,000 in addition to legions of supporting faculty and staff, and campuses frequently dominate their host cities both by population and square mileage. Furthermore, college campuses are communities almost entirely composed of legal adults. Apart from the panicky anti-student stereotype that considers all college students as reckless, inebriated hooligans, there seems to be no good reason to prevent residents on university campuses from owning guns that could end up saving lives and reducing crime.

To be sure, state universities could enact reasonable restrictions on gun ownership in the campus community without enforcing unconstitutional blanket prohibitions. For instance, many states require handgun owners to be at least 21 years of age; this disqualifies the majority of the student population at most four-year institutions of higher learning. Even without allowing every student to carry any weapon at all times, students who legally own and safely operate their firearms have a constitutional right to do so on the campus of a public university.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jason Orr

Jason is a student at Harvard Law School and writes on legal and policy issues. A 2009 graduate of the College of William and Mary, he worked at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, before reentering academia. Jason's views have been published in a number of print and online news outlets, including the Washington Post and the Daily Caller.

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