Gun laws and campus policies perplex college sports programs

Recent gun violence involving college players show the challenge facing athletic departments when it comes to determining how gun laws and regulations should be applied within their programs

People work to remove flowers from the memorial at the Rock in honor of three students killed at Michigan State University on March 2, 2023, in East Lansing, Michigan.
People work to remove flowers from the memorial at the Rock in honor of three students killed at Michigan State University on March 2, 2023, in East Lansing, Michigan.Nick King (AP)

At Alabama, one of the team’s best players allegedly delivered a gun that was used in a fatal shooting. At New Mexico State, a player avoided charges for shooting and killing a student in what he said was self-defense, even though he was carrying a gun in violation of school rules.

At Michigan State, sports were suspended after gun violence on campus left three students dead. At LSU, the team’s leading wide receiver was arrested, but not charged, for carrying a gun through the French Quarter in New Orleans.

The headlines over the past few months illustrate the challenge for athletic departments in determining how gun laws in their states and regulations at their schools should be applied to their programs and communicated to their players. An Associated Press analysis of more than a dozen schools in the NCAA tournaments shows a wide range of policies that govern guns at those schools and uneven efforts to regulate them.

“I have no idea,” Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo told AP when asked what he should say to players who legally possess a gun. “Whatever the law is, you can’t supersede the law on your team or in your program.”

Mississippi State coach Chris Jans, when asked about his own team’s gun policy: “That’s a good question. Not sure I know the correct answer to that right now.”

The NCAA has no gun policy on its books, calling it a law-enforcement issue. That means rules for sports teams, if they exist, are derived from a mixture of state laws, university policies and, in some cases, supplements to those policies in the student-athlete handbooks. In some instances, coaches implement their own team rules. But as cases across the country have shown – just in the past four months alone – there is confusion, mixed messages and what some perceive as seat-of-the-pants decision-making on issues that can have life-or-death consequences.

Marquette coach Shaka Smart said he’s been “yelled at by my superiors” over the years when he brings up sensitive topics such as guns to his players. So, he says, he treads lightly on the subject.

“Now, should you be driving around with a gun in your glove compartment or whatever?” Smart said. “I’m not passing judgment on anyone anywhere else as it relates to that. But no, our players should not be doing that and I should not be doing that. And so I don’t, and they don’t.”

Guns are prohibited in buildings on the Marquette campus in Milwaukee. At Kansas State, concealed weapons are allowed on campus, so long as they are legally owned.

“We have to explain to them why we feel like one decision may be, in this moment in time, a little more prudent than another decision in another moment of their life,” K-State coach Jerome Tang said. “Like, later on in life, if they want to get a license, that’s fine. But right now, in this moment, it may not be as wise for you.”

The AP’s analysis found that in many instances, school policies differ from state to state, and sometimes from campus to campus within the same state. Most student-athlete handbooks simply reiterate school policy regarding weapons.

In Texas, open carry is not allowed at either the University of Houston or at the University of Texas in Austin, the site of a 1966 mass shooting from the clock tower on campus. But concealed carry is allowed in some areas of each campus, the listings of which are available on the school websites.

The NCAA bans guns on the premises of its championship events, presumably meaning the Final Four sites – in Dallas (women) and Houston (men) – will be gun free.

In Alabama, a state law that went into effect this year made it legal to openly carry a gun without a permit. Still, guns are prohibited on campus. Police say Alabama star Brandon Miller delivered a gun to a teammate and another person who are charged with the Jan. 15 fatal shooting of 23-year-old Jamea Harris.

Miller has not been charged with a crime and has continued to play for his team, which is the overall top seed in the tournament that gets into full swing Thursday. But the school’s handling of Miller’s status in the aftermath of the shooting underscores the confusion over the topic.

There was more than a month between the killing and police testimony that Miller had brought the gun to his teammate, Darius Miles, who was removed from the team after he was charged, then later indicted, in Harris’ death.

“Our role in a criminal investigation is to support law enforcement, not to conduct our own investigation – and not to interfere with their efforts,” athletic director Greg Byrne said in an ESPN interview.

At New Mexico State, campus officials appeared unprepared to deal with a shooting that resulted in the death of a student from University of New Mexico. NMSU forward Mike Peake said he was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed Brandon Travis last November while the Aggies were on a road trip in Albuquerque.

Guns are prohibited on New Mexico State’s campus and on school road trips. Still, police say Peake brought the gun with him on the team bus; it took the school 16 days to permanently suspend him from the team after the shooting.

“I don’t know if it’s a rule you talk about with the players, that you can’t bring a gun on the bus,” said Rus Bradburd, a former coach and current professor at New Mexico State whose book, “All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed,” tells the story of gun violence and basketball in Chicago. “But do you need to write that down? It’s like, I always wear pants to a faculty meeting, but that’s not anywhere in the bylaws. It’s sort of understood.”

LSU receiver Malik Nabers was disciplined by the school (no specifics were given) but will not miss games next season after being arrested for illegally carrying a weapon on Bourbon Street last month. Had the incident happened on a busy street in Texas, where permits are not required to carry a concealed weapon, he wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.

“Are we concerned about guns with the student athletes? Yeah, we are,” an LSU employee familiar with the situation told AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “There’s a prevalence of guns everywhere right now. It is something we address specifically among a number of other issues.”

Last fall at Virginia, the football team canceled the season’s final game after a former member of the team, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., was charged with murdering three players and wounding two students on campus. Authorities later found guns in his dorm room on the campus where, with few exceptions, weapons are not permitted.

It illustrated the impossibility of monitoring every student at any campus, and magnified the plight of sports leaders whose programs can be thrust into the spotlight in the aftermath of gun violence.

“The violence is right there with drug use and other sorts of things we hope to guide them away from,” said Mike Marlow, the athletic director at Northern Arizona, where guns are not allowed. “You hope that you have the type of culture in place that discourages the behavior, even if there is some legality to it.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS