Education

Stun guns' impact on campus safety unknown

Bill before governor lets them on Iowa public campuses

One of the efforts to improve campus safety at Iowa State University is an Uber-like ride hailing program called SafeRide. Connor Reding, 20, of Minnesota, on Friday evening leaves the SafeRide Help Van after being dropped off from a trip from his residence. (Lyn Keren/Ames Tribune)
One of the efforts to improve campus safety at Iowa State University is an Uber-like ride hailing program called SafeRide. Connor Reding, 20, of Minnesota, on Friday evening leaves the SafeRide Help Van after being dropped off from a trip from his residence. (Lyn Keren/Ames Tribune)
/

Not even a week into the fall semester, Iowa State University police responded in August to a call about four armed men near the campus-owned Frederiksen Court Apartments.

The three handguns and one rifle police confiscated — including at least one with an laser meant to threaten or intimidate — were determined to be just BB guns. But they scared neighbors and brought criminal charges.

That episode, according to ISU police Chief Michael Newton, illustrates why all three of Iowa’s public universities for years have banned all types of weapons from campus — including real guns, pellet guns, stun guns and daggers.

And it captures some of Newton’s concerns with new legislation allowing stun guns on the ISU, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa and community college campuses — should Gov. Kim Reynolds sign Senate File 188 that passed the Legislature on April 23.

“We would have preferred that they were continued to be prohibited,” Newton said.

Lawmakers backing the bill, however, see stun gun allowance not as impeding campus safety but improving it.

“This is about people being able to make the decision for themselves to choose to use one of these devices if they need to, if they want to, and be able to hopefully avoid having a tragic attack or assault perpetrated upon them,” said Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Those points and counterpoints gained champions in the legislative debate over the “stun gun” bill, which allows their presence on campus except in stadiums or university-affiliated hospitals.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The law wades into several hotly-debated issues — including gun control, campus safety and overregulation. It could also indirectly affect campus issues like recruiting and retention, and Newton said — should the bill become law — his office will monitor its transition from concept to reality.

“Does this make people actually feel more uncomfortable in the residence halls when they find out their roommate has one of these devices?” he asked.

Iowa’s public universities — like colleges nationwide — have expanded their response to growing concerns over campus safety with more training, task forces, bystander intervention and administrative resources, among other things.

The University of Iowa, among its efforts, expanded its NiteRide program, which lets students hail a safe ride home overnight between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. It also deployed a “Rave Guardian app” letting users request a “virtual safety escort” from family, friends or public safety.

ISU offers something merging those ideas with its Uber-like SafeRide service, which allows students to call for an escort home — either by foot or vehicle.

And UNI students recently lobbied their administration to maintain and modify the campus’ Panther Shuttle service, despite discussions about cutting its budget.

The UI Department of Public Safety and its director, Scott Beckner, declined to talk with The Gazette about its safety efforts and the new stun gun bill for this article — referring questions to the Board of Regents instead.

Board spokesman Josh Lehman said “student safety has been, and will continue to be, a top priority for the board and its institutions.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“Making our campuses the safest environments possible, which allows for high-quality learning, is something we take seriously.”

ISU Chief Newton said his concerns, in part, relate to all the work the campuses already are doing and fears stun guns could impede progress and potentially provide a “false sense of security.”

“There’s the potential that somebody could take that weapon away from them and use it against them,” he said. “And there’s no provision — unless they change (the law) — for training and making sure they know how to properly use the device.”

Windschitl, when introducing the bill, acknowledged stun guns aren’t meant as a panacea to campus violence and sexual assault. Rather, he referred to them as another tool in the expanding box of self-defense options.

He noted the law permits only those devices requiring “one-to-one” contact — not projectile Tasers that fire barbs attached to wires. And he reminded colleagues the Legislature in 2017 passed a law allowing Iowans older than 18 to carry stun guns — they still need a permit to conceal carry one, but they don’t need a permit to acquire one.

“This merely says that community colleges and universities cannot enforce policies that would restrict students, faculty, people on the campuses from being able to have a self-defense tool — a stun gun,” Windschitl said.

‘Not a logical way’

His Democratic colleagues flagged a slew of concerns about the stun guns’ limitations and potential risks.

Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, noted the high percentage of sexual assault victims attacked by individuals they know — meaning that a victim may not feel the need to have carried a stun gun while with the individual. She also pointed to the high percentage of attacks involving alcohol.

“College campuses can be a dangerous place for women, and it’s not just walking home from class at night,” she said. “It’s on a date. It’s at a party with friends. And it’s more often than not in places where your guard is down and you might not be carrying a weapon of any kind.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, said the bill puts pressure in the wrong place. Too often, she said, the onus is placed on victims to “somehow not get raped, when we should be talking to young men about not raping people.”

The bill fails to consider who might have access to stun guns, according to Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport. And she noted stun guns only daze an attacker with a one- to two-second shock. They require three to five seconds of contact to inflict the “desired loss of balance,” Winckler said.

“I think about an attack situation, and I think about having to administer that stun close to a person who is trying to attack for up to five seconds,” she said. “This is not a logical way of addressing violence on campus.”

She worried stun guns would provide a false sense of security, create chaos on campus and lead to more liability for the universities.

Windschitl rebuffed those concerns, saying he wants only to return control to the people.

“We need to be empowering these students, empowering these faculty, empowering these people that are at these institutions to be able to defend themselves,” he said.

‘Common sense’

Amendments that did stick, despite some GOP pushback, will allow the universities to continue barring felons from carrying stun guns on campus and keeping the devices from stadiums and hospitals.

“I think about the fact that when you combine alcohol and sporting events, you can have a very dangerous situation,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who proposed the “common sense” changes.

Windschitl accepted the compromise but stressed universities wouldn’t be allowed to ban stun guns in nearby parking lots or vehicles.

Alan Heisterkamp, director of the Center for Violence Prevention at UNI, said he’s glad stun guns will continue to be banned from stadiums — but he thinks the conversation is misguided.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“This legislation is another example of how we have mistakenly talked about and created policies under the umbrella of prevention, when it’s really risk reduction,” he said.

And risk reduction, according to Heisterkamp, puts the burden on the victim.

“Why didn’t they have this device? Why were they not watching what they were drinking?” he said, predicting what some might say. Campuses instead should focus on preventing perpetrators from refusing to take no for an answer, from targeting intoxicated women, from slipping drugs into drinks.

“An unconscious person is not going to be able to operate a stun gun effectively,” he said.

Heisterkamp said he hopes, if the governor signs the measure, that it won’t be the final say. The universities should track the implications — something ISU‘s Chief Newton said he plans to do, in part, because of the chance the law is counterproductive to improving campus safety.

“Because we prohibited weapons on campus for so long,” he said, “there’s no way to know until they’re here.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.