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Proposed bill would allow females to carry concealed handguns on campus

Virginia House Bill 761 receives support, backlash, presents possible Title IX violation, Coughlin says

The south portico of the Virginia State Capitol, in Richmond, VA, with the Senate, left, and House of Delegates (right) chambers. Photo taken Monday, April 23, 2007.
The south portico of the Virginia State Capitol, in Richmond, VA, with the Senate, left, and House of Delegates (right) chambers. Photo taken Monday, April 23, 2007.

Last month, House Bill 761 was introduced to the floor of the Virginia General Assembly by Del. Nicholas Freitas (R-Culpeper). The bill has since been tabled.

This bill “prohibits public institutions of higher education from adopting or enforcing any rules prohibiting a female who possess a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit from carrying a concealed handgun on campus.”

Support for the bill

Freitas said the bill is needed so women can invoke their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

“We would always like to make sure that everyone can exercise their Second Amendment rights,” Freitas said. “If we have a particular case where women are being specifically targeted, then we want to make sure that we can extend those rights to women wherever they’re at.”

The bill also aims to empower women by limiting their reliance on university security forces, Freitas said.

“The whole role of the bill, we felt, was to empower women,” Freitas said. “We’ve seen instances, like in Nevada, where a woman on campus was raped 100 feet away from the campus police station. So the idea that we can… protect women by just providing more security is false.”

Freitas said he hopes the bill will not only encourage more women to get concealed handgun permits, but will also deter future violence against women.

“[The bill] could potentially encourage other women to seek out options and to seek out training in order to receive a [concealed] carry permit,” Freitas said. “The other thing that would potentially happen with this is you would have the residual effect of those people that currently prey on women on a college campus, or maybe a person that sees a college as a potential place to prey on women, would now be forced to think twice if a woman is going to be allowed to… exercise her Second Amendment right on campus.”

Opposition to the bill

Others worry HB 761 may lead to more dangerous situations on campus. Law School alumnus Matt Bennett — who co-founded Third Way, a Democratic think-tank born from the Americans for Gun Safety group — said it is unclear how an increased presence of guns on campus will produce positive results.

“There are plenty of obvious reasons why guns and college students may not mix,” Bennett said. “Among them, alcohol consumption and the still developing brains and personalities of college students don’t always go well with firearms. There’s plenty of irresponsible behavior without guns on campuses; it’s not clear at all that guns would contribute in a positive way to that mix.”

By mandating what gun policies public universities must follow, the bill is taking away some of the administration’s oversight, Bennett said.

“Universities certainly should retain the ability to regulate what their students are doing on campus,” Bennett said. “There is a degree of responsibility that universities have in ensuring that their campuses remain safe, and if a university administration makes the judgment that guns would make their campuses less safe, they should have the ability to impose those kinds of rules.”

University students’ views

The bill, first and foremost, protects university females and their Second Amendment right to bear arms, fourth-year College student and College Republicans President Jay Boyd said.

“[HB 761 is] a pretty short and straightforward bill about having more freedom of carry around campuses across the state,” Boyd said. “It allows more freedom for females… and makes it so they’re more able to exercise their Second Amendment right.”

This bill may make some students, particularly those in College Republicans, feel safer on Grounds, Boyd said.

“Most people within the College Republicans will feel that the Grounds are safer [with the bill],” Boyd said. “This is something that’s a little more comforting to… moderates of the pro-gun Republicans [who] feel that it’s just a Second Amendment right to carry.”

Not everyone on Grounds shares Boyd’s sentiments. Third-year College student and University Democrats President Sam Tobin said he fears if HB 761 passes, it will create greater safety concerns.

“[HB 761] doesn’t solve any problems,” Tobin said. “It will only create more problems [and] create a more dangerous campus. People haven’t been properly trained to carry guns around campus. I think that’s where accidents happen… particularly at U.Va., where there’s a lot of drinking and alcohol involved.”

While there are multiple steps an individual must go through to get a concealed handgun permit, these standards may not be rigorous enough for the permits to apply to University students, Tobin said.

“My issue with the bill is [that] concealed handgun permits in Virginia [are], in my opinion and I think in any reasonable person’s opinion, ridiculously easy [to get] and really not a good standard,” Tobin said. “You have to take a test online, you have to watch a video online and take the test, then you get to carry a gun around. I think that’s nuts that the standard is so low to be able to do that.”

The bill and Title IX

Beyond concerns about what this bill means for gun regulation, there are concerns it may violate Title IX, which prohibits any public institution — including public universities and colleges — from discriminating against students on the basis of sex.

The text of HB 761 specifically says the bill applies to females, which is a clear violation of Title IX, Law Prof. Anne Coughlin said.

“[The bill is], on its face, discrimination based on sex,” Coughlin said. “That kind of classification is a violation of the federal Constitution.”

Females are the most common victims of violence on college campuses, so the bill was designed to protect their rights specifically, Freitas said.

“We have a great number of reports out right now that women are specifically being targeted, whereas we don’t see the same reports and the same cases with respect to men,” Freitas said.

While state courts have made several exceptions to Title IX in the past, there needs to be an exceedingly good reason for an exception in this case, Coughlin said.

“The sex classification isn’t given as strict scrutiny — this is, under the Constitution — as race, but you have to come up with an exceedingly persuasive justification for the classification and that justification can’t be grounded in stereotypes,” Coughlin said. “Even if there [is] some empirical basis for thinking that you know women need guns to protect themselves… or that women suffer from violence more than men and, hence, need this kind of protection… I would think a court would strike it down on the ground that it just rests on stereotypes.”

Looking forward

While the bill was originally scheduled to be voted on this session, it has been tabled until next session, when it will be evaluated further. Freitas said he is confident it will gain greater support in the Assembly’s next session.

“As [the bill] comes up again, and as we have these other people that are able to testify, I anticipate that we’re going to see growing support because, again, I think that women should be allowed to exercise all their rights — not just the ones politicians are ready for,” Freitas said.

Bennett said he is doubtful the bill will become a law.

“I don’t think [Gov. Terry] McAuliffe will sign it and, second, I doubt it would even pass both houses of the Virginia legislature,” Bennett said. “Most [bills] don’t even get to the governor’s desk, and I doubt this will get that far and it certainly won’t get any farther.”

Should the bill pass the Virginia legislature and receive McAuliffe’s approval, it may still be declared unconstitutional at a federal level, Coughlin said.

“[HB 761] is an unconstitutional classification based on sex,” Coughlin said in an email statement. “The state is not permitted to discriminate on the basis of sex unless it can articulate an exceedingly persuasive justification for doing so. In this case, the state could not satisfy this burden. It is understandable that, in the current climate, politicians are searching for ways to protect women from sexual violence and sexual misconduct. But this is a bad bill.”

The bill will up for reevaluation in January 2017.


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