01/09/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Protecting the Firearms Firewall on America's College Campuses

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre -- one of the most horrific crimes ever committed in our nation's history -- lawmakers in many states, with plenty of support from the gun lobby, will seek to expand policies allowing for the possession of guns in public places.

One front in this push will be state lawmakers' attempts to require that public universities allow the possession of guns on campuses, a reaction similar to that which occurred in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting that claimed the lives of 32 people and the gunman. Five states currently require public universities to allow guns on their campuses, although the introduction of legislation seeking to mandate the liberalization of campus gun policies has risen sharply in recent years.

Influencing state legislative debates will be various gun rights lobbies, most notably, the National Rifle Association (NRA). Despite promises of "meaningful contributions" from the NRA after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary, the group flatly rejected the need for any significant proposals on reforming current gun laws. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, in a press conference after the Newtown tragedy. As a primary public policy solution, the NRA called for the placement of armed security guards at every school in America. Using this logic -- putting armed guards in venues that have been witness to recent gun-related massacres in the U.S. -- would require placing these guards at every corporate office building, manufacturing plant, retail establishment, movie theater, religious institution, college campus building and street corner in America. The policy approach proposed by the gun lobby, however, runs counter to public opinion. In fact, according to the latest Gallup polling data, most Americans desire a strengthening of gun laws.

The great majority of American college campuses prohibit guns. And it is not a coincidence that these are among the safest sanctuaries in our society. The reasons for keeping guns off campus are logical and rational. There is a general consensus among college administrators, faculty, students and law enforcement officials that introducing guns on campus is antithetical to fostering an environment that is safe and conducive to learning. Colleges and universities utilize their own police forces and those of local municipalities to oversee public safety. Arming the campus population with guns is not the answer to ensuring increased security. The risks of gun-related death and injury on and near campus, whether through accidental discharge or criminal intent, are too great. An increased prevalence of guns could also have a significant impact on the suicide rate among students. Suicide is already a top leading cause of death among American college students and an increased presence of guns could lead to a much higher proportion of suicide attempts being successful.

The unimaginable horror witnessed at Sandy Hook Elementary School has yet again served as a wake-up call to implement sensible gun laws. As a result, President Obama and Vice President Biden have moved forward with urgency in a quest to implement public policy measures intended to reduce gun violence in America. College leaders have historically and recently called for stricter standards involving guns on campus. In the coming weeks, the nation's higher education community will work vigorously to inform the debate over gun violence and gun control.

Reducing this violence must involve a holistic public policy approach that includes addressing mental health issues. In this national debate, however, we must address the core issue -- that the ease of acquiring guns and the prevalence of military-style assault rifles is why America stands out on a global scale when it comes to gun violence.

Of all the higher education policy issues that will draw state lawmakers' attention this year -- college affordability and access being chief among them -- it is unfortunate that so much energy will likely be given to legislation aimed at forcing universities to allow guns on campus. Nevertheless, as state legislative sessions get underway, college officials in many states will work to turn back legislative proposals that mandate public universities to allow guns on campus. A sensible approach to ensuring our individual liberties and collective security as it involves campus gun policies can only be achieved if higher education leaders, in unison with law enforcement officials and policymakers, take meaningful action. We must find a common sense approach that simultaneously upholds our Constitutional right to bear arms while creating a safer and more civil society. Part of this approach involves ensuring that the firearms firewall that largely exists at most of our nation's college and university campuses is maintained.