Martha Altman didn’t feel safe at the University of Colorado. She worked nights at the medical campus in Aurora, often leaving alone in the dark after clocking out at 5 a.m. She wanted to carry her handgun — she’s a licensed holder of a concealed-carry permit — but the university bans all firearms on campus.
So Altman sued, arguing that Colorado’s Concealed Carry Act also applies to universities. The trial court dismissed the case, but the Colorado Court of Appeals last week sided with Altman, holding that the university is subject to the same concealed-carry laws as the rest of the state and sending the case back to the trial court.
The decision came as a significant victory for gun-rights advocates, who have long contended that universities are actually safer when people other than psychotic killers carry firearms on campus. Still, that argument has rarely prevailed, given that the vast majority of U.S. universities and colleges prohibit the presence of guns.
Utah is currently the only state that allows handguns on campus and specifically prohibits universities from opting out of the state’s concealed-carry law. All Colorado universities have policies banning concealed-carry firearms on campus, but those rules are now likely to be challenged.
"Any campus gun ban has to be revisited and repealed in light of this court decision," said Jim Manley, an attorney with Rocky Mountain Legal Foundation who represented Altman, two other students, and Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.
Gun-control groups are urging the university to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court. The school’s Board of Regents is expected to take up the issue at its next meeting.
But the law doesn’t appear to be on the university’s side. The state’s 2003 concealed-carry law lists several locations where handguns are specifically banned, including K-12 schools, but says nothing about universities.
"The statute’s plain language applies to ‘all areas of the state’ and does not specify public universities in its list of exceptions," said Judge Robert Hawthorne in the April 15 opinion. "Had the legislature intended to exempt universities, it knew how to do so.’
The University of Colorado has had a firearms ban on the books since 1970. A year after the concealed-carry law passed, the Board of Regents reaffirmed its anti-gun rule on the belief that the law didn’t apply to universities.
Forty states have laws giving citizens the "right to carry" firearms, but 24 of those prohibit permit-holders from bringing handguns on university property. Another 14 states leave it up to the universities to decide whether they want to allow concealed-carry on campus, according to Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.
Until recently, Colorado State University was one of a handful of schools to allow students with a concealed-carry permit to bring firearms on campus. For seven years, there were no concealed-carry incidents on campus. Students for Concealed Carry cites data from the universities’ websites showing that crime actually decreased at CSU during that period, while crime at CU increased.
"Clearly concealed-carry doesn’t cause the heightened risk, heightened accidents and heightened incidents that the Brady Campaign and others say it will," said Students for Concealed Carry spokesman David Burnett.
In February, however, Colorado State reversed its policy and approved a ban. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the local chapter of Students for Concealed Carry filed a lawsuit challenging the rule the day before the court of appeals decision.
"The only reason they changed their policy was peer pressure," said Manley. "Every other Colorado university had banned concealed-carry, so they thought they should do it."
The debate over the merits of concealed-carry on campus intensified after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. Gun-rights advocates argue that the university’s anti-firearms policy offered no protection from the gunman, but that an armed student or professor might have been able to stop him.
Foes of concealed-carry argue that the presence of more weapons increases the odds of gun-related violence on campus. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, urged the University of Colorado to appeal the court ruling "to ensure that students and faculty are protected from the severe danger posed by loaded weapons on campus."
Altman insists the university has nothing to fear from licensed concealed-carry holders.
"It’s no different than if I’m carrying at a grocery store," said Altman. "Those who have gone through the process of obtaining a concealed-carry permit are not going to be the ones who start a gunfight at the O.K. Corral."