As mass shootings across the nation prompted top university administrators to advocate for Congress to make specific gun safety reforms, the University of Wisconsin faces state limitations on taking a stance on the issue as a publicly-funded institution.
UW officials have yet to sign an open letter from College Presidents for Gun Safety, which more than 300 university presidents and high ranking officials have signed, because state gun law standards and general campus opinion pose unique barriers for a public university.
Although UW Vice Chancellor of External Relations Vince Sweeney said he could not speak as to whether Interim Chancellor David Ward would sign the letter, he added it had only been circulated at universities which are not like UW, including many smaller liberal arts schools.
CPGS’ letter called for four measures: opposing laws permitting guns on college campuses and in classrooms, preventing purchase of firearms from unlicensed sellers, banning semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and enforcing safety standards for all guns.
However, according to Provost Paul DeLuca, the four CPGS measures are not possible for publicly-funded institutions, such as UW, as they must abide by Wisconsin’s laws regarding regulation of firearms because those issues are the state’s business.
“We have to comply with the state regulations,” DeLuca said. “It’s not like we’re free to decide to do something different from the state law.”
However, DeLuca expressed personal support for gun safety regulation and added he would sign the CPGS if he were Interim Chancellor Ward and Wisconsin law allowed for the measure.
UW history professor John Sharpless said he is “absolutely opposed” to Ward signing the letter or speaking in the name of the institution when advocating for any controversial public policy.
He said Ward should not say UW is “against guns” when not all 40,000 students, staff and faculty feel that way.
“He can’t make a statement in the name of this institution,” Sharpless said. “It’s a public university in a state in which firearms ownership is very widely accepted.”
Sharpless, who is a Badger Herald advisor, noted the issue would be different if Ward dissociated himself from UW before speaking, or if he were only to endorse the provision banning guns from campus.
He added in a state where nearly half of adults own guns, if Ward comes out against firearms, it is just one more reason why the state might not support the university.
DeLuca also said he thinks the university’s current gun safety policies are “quite effective,” noting students and staff cannot have firearms or weapons in campus buildings or university housing. He recognized people can legally carry concealed guns on state property.
UW Police Department Chief Susan Riseling said she would prefer if concealed carry was allowed on campus, as about half of active shooters open fire outdoors.
Riseling added the issue is not about gun control, but rather it is about intervening before these shooting sprees occur. She said neither this CPGS letter nor any legislation would likely address the root of the problem.
“I don’t know if the federal government can do anything to recognize these warning signs,” Riseling said. “I think what it takes is for an average American knowing when they hear somebody talking about this, they hear somebody planning this or they hear somebody obsessing about past mass violence, they let somebody know.”
Despite his personal support for gun safety, DeLuca said he does not necessarily think the four CPGS initiatives would make UW safer.
Ward declined The Badger Herald’s request for an interview.