CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia law prohibits "deadly weapons" on elementary and high school property, with the exception of armed security guards or police, but the state leaves it up to individual colleges and universities how to handle guns on their campuses.
None of West Virginia's four-year public colleges and universities permit weapons on campus, with schools outlining their own policies on the issue, according to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
"When parents send their children to college, they are entrusting us with the most important people in their lives," said state higher education Chancellor Paul Hill. "Our colleges and universities have an obligation to not only educate students, but also keep them safe."
About half of the 50 states specifically prohibit carrying concealed weapons on college campuses, according to an analysis this week by Mother Jones magazine. Five states -- Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming -- allow concealed weapons on campus, according to the analysis. In several other states, lawmakers recently have introduced legislation to permit college students to carry concealed weapons.
West Virginia University prohibits possession or storage of deadly weapons anywhere on campus -- including in cars parked on school property. (The Mountaineer mascot, who totes his iconic muzzleloader at sporting events, is exempt under state law.) WVU also outlaws destructive devices of any form, such as fireworks, on campus.
Marshall University's policy prohibits concealed and unconcealed possession or storage of any weapon, and even bans slingshots.
Both major universities have campus police departments, with officers on patrol around the clock.
"Ongoing discussion regarding weapons on college campuses is an issue about public safety -- specifically student safety," Hill said. "It is critical that we all work together to provide a safe learning environment for current and future students across the state's educational system.
"The tragic events at campuses across the nation have made the issue of campus safety very real for all of us. Education leaders across our state have learned a great deal from these tragic events."
'You have no idea what it's like'
Brian Hemphill, president of West Virginia State University, has indeed learned from tragedy on college campuses -- he lived through one.
Hemphill was vice president of student affairs at Northern Illinois University in 2008 when a gunman shot 21 people on campus, killing five, before taking his own life.
When an intruder opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, killing 20 children and six adults, Hemphill thought back to that day at NIU.
Just last week, a gunman opened fire at a community college in Texas, again bringing the memories to the surface.
"Every time you hear about a tragedy striking a community, it really brings you back on multiple levels," Hemphill said. "If you've never responded to a scene like that, you have no idea what it's like and what impact it can have on you and your university community forever.
"It's not just devastating on a personal level but, for me, it's a reminder that we have to make sure, as a university, that we're able to stop these things from happening."
Hemphill said he believes guns do not belong in schools but that the discussion of campus safety is "critical."
School officials should have thorough crisis-response plans in place, and Hemphill said he believes a college should have a "threat-assessment team." The team would meet on a weekly basis and evaluate any student, or campus presence, that has shown questionable behavior.
"There is one thing that is certain in all of this: Someone noticed something about that individual that was concerning before tragedy struck, but in many cases, it was overlooked," Hemphill said. "These teams can reach out to people who may have challenges in their lives by simply asking if they need help."
The shooter at NIU was a former student who had a history of mental illness.
"You can't prevent somebody that's intent on hurting people -- it's almost impossible when universities are wide open communities -- but, you can make sure that you do things that reduce the likelihood of having people killed," Hemphill said. "This isn't just a serious concern for our universities, but for our country."
One of Hemphill's students agrees that it's a serious concern, but sees a completely different answer.
Keith Morgan, president of the West Virginia Citizens Defense League and a WVSU student, said he hears complaints from students all the time.
"Most universities have quite a large number of students that wouldn't be able to defend themselves, while violent crime happens on a regular basis on and near campuses," Morgan said. "School administrators are ensuring that college students are just fish in a barrel. On campus, I'm a fish in a barrel. I couldn't do anything to stop a violent attack."
Morgan said that, while policies allow armed guards and police on campus, it's not enough.
"The presence of campus police doesn't matter. These things are over in seconds, and the damage is done. Even if an officer is just across campus, it's over," he said. "I can't say that these things would not happen if guns were allowed, but I can tell you that it would be ended quickly if a gunman entered a classroom that I was in."
Next month, Morgan said, his group will meet with the Legislature, where he will push for legislation that allows guns on campuses, among other changes that he believes are now denying gun owners' rights.
House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, said that, while state lawmakers have focused on armed officers on school grounds, she's never discussed the issue of allowing students to carry guns on campus.
She said that's a conversation she's willing to have but that she doesn't see the benefit.
"It's my belief that students wouldn't be any safer just because they would be allowed to carry guns. I'm not interested in opening that up to allow campuses to permit guns," said Poling, a former schoolteacher. "I know there have been campus shootings, but I don't believe students having access to guns would necessarily make them safer."
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