From Columbine to Concealed Carry On Campus Gun Control in Colorado after Regents

Henry Vorderbruggen[1]

On March 5, 2012, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with gun advocates in a surprising decision that allows students and professors to carry concealed weapons on college campuses across Colorado.[2] The Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a “national, non-partisan, grassroots organization composed of more than 43,000 college students, professors, college employees, parents of college students, and concerned citizens,” initiated the lawsuit against the University of Colorado (CU) Board of Regents, claiming that the school’s weapons policy violated the Colorado Concealed Carry Act (“the Act”),[3] as well as the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.[4] The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Colorado Court of Appeals, and interpreted the Act as purposely constructed in a statewide, comprehensive way, with limited exclusions for licensed persons carrying concealed weapons in public forums. By incorporating narrow and specific categories of exemptions, the state legislature had clearly intended to keep guns out of some locations, but not most.  The decision struck-down as unconstitutional the CU weapons policy that banned all weapons on campus, except those carried by law enforcement personnel.[5]

The result is that anyone with a valid permit is now able to legally carry concealed weapons on college campuses and other previously restricted public forums across Colorado. For a state at the center of the national gun debate since the tragedy of Columbine, the law should provide an excellent experiment as part of the ongoing fight over gun rights and the reach of the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, in this fight, wins and losses are counted with corpses, and the future of the law will depend on what terms a shooting happens on a Colorado college campus again, and what role concealed weapons play in the outcome.

Colorado’s Concealed Carry Act established a permit system that includes minimum age mandates, strict background checks, and prerequisites for certified weapons training.[6] As soon as a permit is issued, the licensed individual is permitted “to carry a concealed handgun in all areas of the state, except as specifically limited” by the Act.[7] The statute includes broad language that prohibits permit holders from carrying weapons in only four specific locations: (1) those places prohibited under federal law; (2) K-12 schools; (3) buildings equipped with metal detectors; and (4) private property, but makes absolutely no mention of college campuses.[8] Because of this “notably absent” statutory language,[9] on December 11, 2008, the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a gun rights organization that advocates for legally licensed people on college campuses,[10] filed a lawsuit claiming that the CU weapons policy violated both the Act, as well as their constitutional right to keep and bear arms.[11]

The district court dismissed the Students’ claims by granting the Board of Regent’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5); failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.  The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Students had raised a legitimate claim for relief under Art. II, § 13 of the Colorado Constitution—a provision closely paralleling the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.[12] The Colorado Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 18, 2010, sparking a national debate that spread like wildfire across the country, as gun rights advocates faced-off with gun control organizations in the ongoing battle for public opinion.  For a state that had only recently begun to recover from the shock of the 1999 Columbine tragedy, the implications of the decision promised to create controversy no matter what the court decided.

The Colorado Court of Appeals had rested its reversal of the district court on the critical provision of the Concealed Carry Act, C.R.S. §  18-12-214(1)(a): “A permit to carry a concealed handgun authorizes the permittee to carry a concealed handgun in all areas of the state, except as specifically limited in this section.” The plain words “all areas of the state,” provide little choice about how to interpret the statute.  The Colorado Supreme Court agreed, holding “that the CCA's comprehensive statewide purpose, broad language, and narrow exclusions show that the General Assembly intended to divest the Board of Regents of its authority to regulate concealed handgun possession on campus.”[13]  The specific and narrow categories of exemptions enumerated in the statute—places where licensed individuals are barred from carrying their concealed weapons—noticeably omits college campuses, and therefore prohibits CU from fostering a policy contrary to the law and the constitution.  In the end, the Colorado Supreme Court made its ruling on statutory grounds, which conveniently left for another court, and another day, the fight over the constitutional claims. 

The policy considerations involved with this case should give us all a moment of pause. Forgetting the niceties of a theoretical debate, the practical result of the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision is that college students and professors can now obtain a concealed weapons permit and bring their guns to school with them. Students for Concealed Carry is an organization that believes “gun free zones,” like college campuses, “serve to disarm only those law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be able to protect themselves.”[14] The group promotes its position by promulgating statistics that show how concealed weapon permit holders are substantially less likely to commit acts of violence than those people without permits.[15] In their lawsuit, the Students also point out that the Colorado Concealed Carry Act was written in a way that does not contemplate keeping guns off college campuses. But does that really mean concealed weapons in the classroom are a good idea?  What is the lesson we have learned as a state, now—more than a decade after the massacre of Columbine?  Are more guns really the answer for Colorado schools?

One thing we know for certain is that arguments built on statistics inevitably fail, because within every set of numbers there are always outliers and exceptions. Of course the vast majority of concealed weapon permit holders are law-abiding people—the basic requirement for obtaining a permit is a clean criminal background check![16] Policymakers, and indeed, the Colorado Supreme Court, should ignore false notions that rely on biased statistical evidence, and focus instead on the real problem that guns in schools create. A rational debate about gun control in Colorado must be grounded in concrete principles, inevitably leading back to the scope of the Second Amendment and the question of fundamental constitutional liberties.

Interestingly, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s assertion that “the right to bear arms is not a ‘fundamental right,’”[17] and the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed that holding, yet refused to expound on its reasoning.[18] So it appears that in Colorado at least, the right to keep and bear arms is as fundamental to a person’s basic liberty as speech or worship, rendering gun rights sacred and practically untouchable. Without expressly saying so,[19] the Regents decision firmly engrains the statutory right to carry a concealed weapon as part of the guarantee established by the Colorado Constitution, and significantly broadens the plain language and meaning of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.[20]

No matter how the law ends-up affecting the overall safety of Colorado’s colleges and universities, both sides of the issue will seek to capitalize on the deadly eventualities Regents has set in motion, and will look to any future campus shooting as definitive proof that their argument was the superior dog in the fight. Either a legally-armed person will use their gun in self-defense—like the law intended—or perhaps a student permit-holder (with no previous criminal record) will unexpectedly discover his girlfriend in bed with another man at the sorority, and immediately reach for his pistol. Such a result would certainly serve to remind the Colorado Supreme Court about the grave implications overly broad interpretations of constitutional rights mean for real people in the real world. And yet, if a different outcome results, and a legally-armed person ends what could have been a massacre, it would reaffirm what gun rights advocates have been saying all along—guns are not the problem.

[1] University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, J.D. Candidate 2013. 

[2] Regents of the Univ. of Colo. v. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, 271 P.3d 496 (2012).

[3] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-12-214.

[4] Regents, at 496.

[5] Id.

[6] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18-12-214.

[7] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18–12–214(1)(a) (emphasis added).

[8] Regents, 271 P.3d at 501-02.

[9] Id. at 501.

[10] (last visited April 13, 2012). The group officially changed its name to Students for Concealed Carry in 2010.

[11] Regents, 271 P.3d at 498.

[12] Id. at 497.

[13] Id. at 498-99.

[14] (last visited April 13, 2012).

[15] Id.

[16] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 18–12–203.

[17] Regents, 271 P.3d at 498.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 497.

[20] “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  U.S. Const. amend. II.