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College students in Utah respond to the presence of firearms on campus

Utah college students have mixed feelings about guns on their campus.

This story is jointly published as part of the Utah College Media Collaborative, a historic cross-campus project bringing together emerging journalists from Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah, Utah State University and Weber State University. The collaborative is an Amplify Utah project with support from PBS Utah.

There have been hundreds — 394 to be exact — of school shootings since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. College campuses have seen nine fatal mass shootings since 2007, when a gunman killed 32 people and injured 23 others at Virginia Tech. Two of those took place in 2023.

The increasingly frequent shootings have brought mixed reactions from students across four of the largest colleges in Utah, where concealed carry laws allow guns on campus, from the classroom to the dorm room. Students from Salt Lake Community College, Weber State University, Utah State University and the University of Utah, which geographically range from the capital city to a more rural, college town, say the issue is complicated.

Amelia Cremer, a communication major at SLCC, said safety is always the most important aspect of firearms and that it shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I am not totally warm to the idea of firearms being welcomed onto school campuses, especially since school shootings are so prevalent nowadays,” Cremer said. “It doesn’t make me feel any more safe in knowing my fellow students or teachers may be carrying. It makes me feel less safe.”

Cremer said she has been around firearms her entire life, as some in her family hunt and shoot for sport. She has spent time at gun ranges and learned gun safety.

“A gun is a tool, but it’s very important to know how to use one properly when around others,” Cremer said.

Salt Lake Community College’s concealed carry weapon policy is to enforce state law regulating weapons on campus. Firearms are prohibited on campus, including sidewalks, unless by law enforcement or exempt under Utah state laws.

Despite her training and experience with guns, Cremer said she chooses not to carry on campus and questions why anyone would.

“I don’t see the need for people to conceal-carry on campus,” Cremer said. “To those who feel unsafe enough to do so, I would say there lies the problem.”

Colleges and universities across Utah offer online information and resources about guns on campus, from frequently asked questions to how to report any incidents of seeing concealed firearms.

USU student Sofi Burggraf, a radiological technology major, said her support of the Second Amendment outweighs worries about the emotional impact of concealed carry policies. Knowing peers, faculty or staff could be legally carrying a gun makes her feel more safe and secure.

“Firearms have a place in today’s world,” Burggraf said, “If that’s what it takes to be safe, I’m willing to try it.”

The Utah State University Student Code prohibits “unauthorized possession or use of a firearm, ammunition, explosives, weapons or dangerous chemicals on University property” unless expressly permitted by law.

While Burggraf said she doesn’t currently have a concealed carry license, she hopes to one day get a permit.

“Utah can be a pretty scary place sometimes,” Burggraf said. “It makes me feel safer to know that other people are carrying just in case anything happens.”

Alex Neely, a journalism and digital media major at SLCC, grew up in a household where there were no firearms. Neely said he understands the interest in carrying a gun but also sees the risks.

“I’m not that bothered by someone on campus concealing a firearm,” Neely said. “But knowing that guns malfunction all the time, I don’t know if it is fully safe to do so.”

In 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 48,000 firearm-related deaths — about 132 per day — in the United States.

Abby Madsen, an exercise science major at Weber, said she has never felt unsafe while at school, but she didn’t realize concealed carry policies allowed guns on public college campuses.

“Now that I know that firearms on campus is a possibility, it definitely makes me feel less safe,” Madsen said.

Weber’s concealed carry weapon policy notes the university “enforces state law regulating firearms on campus.”

During on-campus interviews at the four schools, some students asked to remain anonymous for fear their difference of views could cause friction with peers.

Jeff, a kinesiology major at the U and a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran, spoke openly about his concerns about guns on campus but ultimately asked to be identified only by his first name. He said he’s worried about judgment from his “super conservative, NRA card-carrying” friends.

“Knowing people are carrying makes me nervous,” Jeff said. “More likely, they could make any encounter so much worse by trying to play hero.”

The U, with the largest on-campus student population in the state, follows University Policy 1-003, which “enforces Utah state law regulating firearms on campus.”

Despite training and familiarity with all types of firearms, from pistols to machine guns, Jeff said the presence of firearms on campus causes him discomfort. He has a concealed carry permit, but he doesn’t think the certificate course qualifies the average person to safely carry a gun.

“The qualifications to carry a concealed weapon in Utah are next to nothing,” Jeff said. “A person who takes a four-hour class and shoots a few rounds is not qualified to hold another person’s life in his hands.”

The Marshall Project reported in November 2023 that mass shootings are becoming more frequent, according to data from The Violence Project, a nonprofit research group that uses a narrow definition of mass shootings adopted from the Congressional Research Service. And, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety, 2024 has seen at least 39 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 14 deaths and 29 injuries nationally.

“I can’t believe that given the frequency of school shootings, that people even think it’s an option to have guns at school,” Jeff said.

Sean Stetson reported and wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College.

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