A new state law gives police officers the right to carry guns in public places, but the Maricopa County Community College District will continue to bar its officers from doing so on campus for several months.
Chancellor Rufus Glasper said the district will obey the law, but not until early next year. MCCCD is taking that time to write its first policy on guns that doesn’t simply ban them.
However, the law’s chief sponsor argues it is illegal for the district to delay, and that without armed police officers, its campuses are unsafe.
“I don’t need another witness. What I need is a person who can take action,” said state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
Twice this year, people have brought guns onto the Mesa Community College campus and threatened to fire them.
MCCCD is Arizona’s only major higher education institution that doesn’t allow its officers to carry guns.
And its elected officials have repeatedly voted against weapons even as it grew into the nation’s largest community college system.
Gov. Janet Napolitano signed the gun law on April 16, the same day a student gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech.
The law takes effect Wednesday.
Officers at the colleges said they must choose between their boss’ directions and state law.
“If one of my officers comes here and he’s armed, I’m going to ask for his certification,” said Lynn Bray, Mesa Community College’s security director. “If he’s certified, I will not tell them they cannot carry a firearm.”
The existing policy will apply until MCCCD’s governing board changes it, said Tom Gariepy, a district spokesman. The new policy will detail when officers can use their weapons, what to do if an officer loses it or accidentally discharges it.
“We believe it would be irresponsible to operate with armed officers and no procedures,” he said.
Gariepy added that governments have a grace period to comply with a new law after it takes effect.
Andrea Esquer, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on whether the colleges are allowed such an exception.
The Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs represents MCCCD’s officers and agrees the district should have rules before officers have guns. “We’re going to back the chancellor and hope he does the right thing,” said Joe Delgado, head of the district’s conference chapter.
Glasper met with several of MCCCD’s 31 certified police officers Wednesday to discuss the gun law. Many began work at the colleges after retiring from police departments.
The district expects to hire a security director next month to oversee officers’ work at all 10 colleges. That administrator will help write firearm rules, Gariepy said, but will not run each college’s independent security team.
Arizona’s three public universities all have their own police departments. Pima Community College, the state’s second largest two-year college system, also has an accredited department and its officers carry guns, said David Irwin, a Pima spokesman.
MCCCD’s board voted against arming police in 2004. Linda Rosenthal, the board’s president, said she supported allowing guns but the proposal failed because the faculty strongly opposed them.
“They thought there would be the possibility of accidents and a different climate on campus with guns,” Rosenthal said.
Now that state law requires college officers to have guns, she said the district is moving at a reasonable pace to write rules and make sure officers are qualified.
Rosenthal bristled at the allegation that MCCCD has stalled. “I don’t know what their rush is,” she said.
The rush is about safety, Pearce said.
While violence is rare, people do bring deadly weapons to Maricopa’s colleges.
On Wednesday night, security officers locked down Mesa Community College’s main campus after a student is alleged to have threatened to pull a gun during an argument.
Mesa police arrested the student, Eddie Collins, 25, hours after the incident when college security saw him driving his car off campus.
Officers reported they did not find a gun, but did find ammunition and what is believed to be part of an assault rifle.
The district gave its officers bulletproof vests last year, said Mark Lacey, an officer at Phoenix College. “So apparently they realize the campuses are dangerous.”
Gariepy said the district bought the vests after a few officers asked for them, not because of a specific threat.
Tribune writer Gary Grado contributed to this report.