Guns in dorms: Why did Florida student stash weapons before suicide?

A student who apparently killed himself with a gun early Monday also had an assault rifle and explosive materials in his dorm room at University of Central Florida, authorities say. It's illegal to have guns on campus in Florida, but some other states now allow them.

John Raoux/AP
University of Central Florida police block off a street near the Tower 1 dorm, tall building center, after explosive devices were found by authorities investigating the apparent suicide of a college student in the dorm, Monday, in Orlando, Fla. Hundreds of students were evacuated, though the school said there was no immediate threat.

A student at the University of Central Florida apparently shot himself to death early Monday in his dorm room, triggering an evacuation of some 500 students at the seven-story dormitory after authorities responding at the scene also found an assault weapon, a handgun, and improvised explosive devices in his room.

"Obviously you never want somebody to commit suicide, but knowing what we know about what was in his room, we feel better at least that no one else was hurt," said university spokesman Grant Heston.

The deceased student, found just after midnight, has not been publicly identified. Police said the explosive devices they found in a bag in his room “have been made safe” and removed from the building, police said. Besides evacuating the dorm, police also cleared a nearby parking garage. Classes at the Orlando public university were cancelled in the morning, but resumed Monday afternoon. Authorities have not said what the student’s intentions may have been. 

The incident – along with several campus shootings this year – has fueled the debate about whether allowing guns on campus enhances or diminishes safety.

The push to allow people to carry concealed firearms on college campuses surged after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which 33 people were killed by a single shooter. Gun-rights advocates, such as the group Students for Concealed Carry, support overturning college gun bans. 

“If you had asked students the morning of the Virginia Tech shooting if they feel safe, I’m almost positive all of them would have said yes, but just a couple of hours later, those students found out that feeling safe is not the same as being safe,” David Burnett, a spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry, told The New York Times last month. “And smaller crimes are as much a reason for self-defense as spree killings.”

A handful of colleges and universities allow guns on campus, but the University of Central Florida is not one of them. Florida is one of 21 states that ban carrying a concealed weapon on college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 23 states, the power to allow or ban guns on campus rests with the college and university administrations. Although those states allow people with permits to carry concealed weapons, university policy can prohibit guns from being carried on campus.

Five states have laws that allow concealed weapons on campus: Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Utah is the only state that specifically prohibits public colleges from banning weapons on campus. The state’s 10 public higher-education institutions allow concealed weapons on campus.

Although some schools allow people to carry concealed weapons on campus, that does not automatically mean students are permitted to keep guns in dormitories.

In March 2012, Oregon’s board of higher education approved a policy banning guns from classrooms, buildings, dormitories, and events, even though the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the longstanding Oregon University System’s ban of guns on campuses in September 2011.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled last March that the University of Colorado was violating the state’s concealed carry laws through a policy banning guns from campus. In August, the university amended its housing contract to ask students living in residence halls to forgo bringing a gun to campus, even if they had a Colorado concealed carry permit. The university said it would accommodate permitted students in a separate housing complex.

“I believe we have taken reasonable steps to adhere to the ruling of the Colorado Supreme Court, while balancing that with the priority of providing a safe environment for our students, faculty and staff,” Philip DiStefano, chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said in a statement at the time.

As of November, no students had requested to stay in those dormitories, the Denver Post reported.

Gun-control advocates say allowing guns on campus will make colleges more dangerous, not safer.

“It’s a bad idea,” James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, told the Monitor late last month after a dorm shooting at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., left one student dead. That's “because college campuses are not rampant with crime, but they are rampant with alcohol and depressed students. Alcohol and depressed students and guns don’t mix very well.”

A group of higher education leaders sent an open letter to Congress in December, asking lawmakers to enact stricter gun regulations as a way to improve campus safety.

“As a group, we do not oppose gun ownership. But, in many of our states, legislation has been introduced or passed that would allow gun possession on college campuses,” the College Presidents for Gun Safety said in the letter. “We oppose such laws.”

Endorsed by more than 300 college leaders, the letter also called for Congress to address the link between mental health issues and gun violence: “We fully understand that reasonable gun safety legislation will not prevent every future murder. Identification and treatment of the mental health issues that lie beneath so many of the mass murders to which we increasingly bear witness must also be addressed.”

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