PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Though he was carrying a gun, eight-year police officer George Sullivan was killed with an ax on the University of Nevada, Reno campus on January 13, 1998. This bench in his memory was placed near the site of the murder.

On Sept. 2 at Idaho State in Pocatello, a few weeks after a new guns-on-campus law took effect, chemistry professor Byron Bennett was lecturing a classroom containing 20 students when a gun somehow fell out of his pocket and fired.

No student was hit, but Bennett himself—a former University of Nevada, Las Vegas instructor—was shot in the foot. He had weapons permits from both Idaho and Utah and had apparently taken instruction in gun use because the Idaho law requires it.

It was the kind of incident college administrators fear will happen under guns-on-campus laws, and the kind that insurance companies also watch.

Nevada legislators who are now considering enacting a law allowing guns to be carried on campus by people over 21 have given very little attention to the insurance issue, and the measures they are processing do not contain language providing funding if insurance costs rise following the approval of any legislation.

Veteran public counsel—attorneys who have served as counsel for public agencies—have asked why the Nevada higher education system has not asked for immunity language to be included in the bills.

There has been very little study of the implications of guns in society because the influence of the National Rifle Association has kept federal funding for such studies unavailable. But insurance companies have their own data-accumulation operations, so their policy decisions in reacting to guns-on-campus bills are revealing.

In 2013, after Kansas enacted legislation allowing teachers and administrators to carry guns at school, EMC Insurance—which insured nearly all of the state’s school districts—ordered its agents to decline coverage to any district allowing the practice.

However, some insurance companies have been willing to provide insurance at reasonable cost in spite of increased risk. In Texas, which has a limited law allowing guns on campus if kept in cars, an insurance pool spread the risk around and held down costs.

University of Nevada, Reno risk manager Sue Dunt said she does not anticipate any increase in the campus’s insurance because state government is shielded by a statutory tort limit and thus carries no liability insurance. The campus is otherwise insured through a state program. State tort claims manager Nancy Katafias was not available for comment.

“There’s no indication that there would be any increase,” Dunt said.

The website of Professional Governmental Underwriters, Inc. cautions, “Educators and school boards considering any policy changes regarding firearms should be aware of the risk exposures their institution could face by allowing firearms on campus.”

An insurance blog that deals with education risks included this post last year: “Many members have asked us what a firearms and weapons policy should include. … Policies should include: a clear statement as to whether or not weapons are allowed on your campus, the purpose of the policy, groups the policy applies to, and finally a section on relevant procedures, such as proper gun storage on campus and exceptions to your policy.” But those policies tend to address situations where carrying guns on campus is limited to teachers and administrators. The Nevada proposal seeks to allow anyone over 21 with weapons permits—students, campus employees, passersby—to all carry weapons on campus.

When a student enrolls on campus because of a marketing pitch, it can increase a campus’s liability. In Nevada, that could mean that campus cutbacks by the Legislature will come home to roost. Since 2007, the state has drastically cut higher education and told the campuses to—as one attorney puts it—“make it up in volume” by attracting more students and more tuition. Colleges that use assurances of safety to lure students to attend (Western Nevada College website: “Continuing efforts are being made to create and maintain a safe campus.”) that are then undercut by actual events may well find themselves facing greater risk in the courtroom.

Related issues

Supporters of guns on campus have been advocating it as a rape preventive, and the National Rifle Association has sponsored legislative testimony in some states by Nevadan and NRA member Amanda Collins, who was raped in a UNR parking garage in 2007. The NRA placed a Collins essay on the topic on the NBC News website. In Nevada, that angle on the issue was also given publicity by bill sponsor Michele Fiore’s comment to the New York Times that “young, hot little girls” on campus can protect themselves by carrying guns.

But other rape victims have objected to the NRA hitching a ride on the rape issue and argue that guns would increase their danger.

“As a survivor, I know the opposite to be true,” wrote Landen Gambill in a petition now being circulated on campuses nationwide. “The rationale behind these bills rests on the myth that most people are raped by strangers; however the vast majority of survivors of sexual assault, including myself, know their rapist. In fact, the presence of guns is proven to exacerbate violence against victims, not prevent it. If my rapist had a gun at school, I have no doubt I would be dead.”

In Texas, where a broader guns-on-campus bill is under consideration, state chancellor William McRaven expressed concern for the state’s ability to lure faculty.

“This to me is really about safety on campus, but one of the things we also need to consider is how you recruit great faculty from outside of Texas,” McRaven said. “We in Texas have a gun culture, and I think most of us understand that. I’m not sure that’s well understood or well appreciated by faculty outside of Texas.”

The sudden rise of the guns-on-campus issue has sparked an unusual wave of activism at state colleges at a time when Nevada has gotten its first anti-gun organization, Nevadans for Background Checks, and is slated to vote on a ballot initiative petition dealing with guns in the 2016 election. Though Nevada is one of the nation’s most urban states—nearly everyone lives in Clark and Washoe counties—rural values have long dominated gun policies in the state.

By introducing no fewer than 10 gun measures at the Legislature, GOP lawmakers have brought the issue alive and drawn many people who had previously had little political interest into the fray. Campus rallies have drawn hundreds and even thousands, and it their interest survives past the legislative session it could make gun policies competitive in Nevada for the first time.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...