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2013 September 2 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : Questions Remain About Gun Law’s Impact on Ala. Campuses

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — As Alabama students return for the fall semester, school officials and state law enforcement leaders are still evaluating how a new state gun law will apply to college campuses, with some predicting the question will have to be answered by the courts.

The new law primarily applies to where and how gun owners in the state may carry or transport their firearms.

The bill’s sponsor in the Alabama Legislature, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said the intent of the law was to make sure lawful gun owners could have access to their firearms to defend themselves if needed.

The law allows a lawful gun owner to openly carry firearms in public places, with certain exceptions, and on private property with consent.

Concealed-carry permit holders are allowed to have handguns on public and private property, with some exceptions. The new law also allows for firearms, under certain conditions, to be stored securely in vehicles in parking lots.

Beason said he believes the new law would permit gun owners, including students, to have weapons on campus, an option traditionally prohibited by the University of Alabama and other institutions. Beason asserts the law reserves “complete control” over regulation of firearms, ammunition and firearm accessories in the state for the Legislature.

In a statement issued in response to questions about UA’s plans following the new law, UA Director of Media Relations Cathy Andreen said the university is evaluating the impact of the new law on its policies. She reiterated that, currently, possessing a gun on campus is a violation of the code of conduct and that policy forbids guns at athletic events.

Before the passage of the new law, unauthorized weapons were prohibited on campus, according to UA. Authorized weapons on campus include weapons carried by university police or other law enforcement officers.

Stillman College and Shelton State Community College plan to continue enforcement of their prohibitions against firearms on campus

The Alabama Community College System will continue to enforce an existing prohibition against unauthorized firearms at its campuses, including Shelton State, according to a July 30 memorandum from ACCS Chancellor Mark Heinrich. College presidents are encouraged in the memo to post signs at all public entrances for campus buildings and discuss the issue with local law enforcement.

St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor, president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said he believes colleges and universities would still have the ultimate say about firearms on their campuses under the new law. He said whether a gun owner’s rights trump universities’ authority will likely be a question for the courts.

Minor added there are other state and federal laws governing firearms that may come into play.

“These are some of the issues that are going to come up and have to be looked at very closely,” Minor said.

The district attorney’s association and the Alabama Sheriff’s Association released an analysis of the new law in July as an aid to understanding the law.

Among the issues facing universities is how the new law applies to firearms at facilities hosting athletic events.

The new law lists facilities where professional, collegiate or other athletic events are hosted among places where gun owners, including concealed-carry permit holders, are prohibited from possessing or carrying a firearm without express permission from authorities overseeing the location.

But the meaning of the law becomes less clear as one section seems to make an exception to the prohibition for concealed-carry permit holders, while another reinforces the authority of property owners to regulate guns at facilities such as stadiums or arenas, where access is limited by guards or security features.

The law also permits firearms to be stored in vehicles in parking lots at facilities, including sites for athletic events, where carrying a gun is prohibited, with exceptions for prisons and mental health facilities.

The analysis by the two associations states security features could be interpreted broadly and include equipment such as fences and security cameras.

The associations also note there is no clear definition of facility in the act, leaving questions about how broadly the prohibitions against firearms can be applied at a location.

Beason said lawmakers used the word “facilities” with colleges and universities in mind. Beason said lawmakers intended for the subsection to allow institutions to limit firearms at facilities such as UA’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, where security measures were in place to create a safe location.

The law could also have implications for employees’ firearms on campus. Beason said he believes college and university employees, like students, would be able to have weapons on campus under the new law.

While the law allows public and private employers to restrict employees from carrying firearms on their person while working or on their employer’s property, it prevents them from barring employees who can legally own guns from keeping firearms out of view and secure in their vehicles under certain conditions.

Employees may have a pistol in their cars with a concealed-carry permit or, if they don’t have a history of violence, can keep unloaded long guns for hunting in their vehicles during a permitted hunting season.

Pistols can also be transported in vehicles without permits as long as they are unloaded and securely stored out of reach of the driver or any passengers.

Minor said the district attorneys and sheriffs associations are hosting a training sessions for state law enforcement, including campus police, to discuss implementation of the new state law.

Minor said the associations hope to reach a consensus on how the law should be interpreted.

“Hopefully, everybody statewide is going to be on the same page,” Minor said.

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