Rifles on campus: US college security forces add firepower
Police say rifles offer more firepower, longer range and greater accuracy than handguns
By Collin Binkley
BOSTON — Once a rarity on campuses, semi-automatic rifles are becoming a standard part of the arsenal for college security forces — firepower they say could make a difference the next time a gunman goes on a rampage.
The weapons are rarely seen in public and often kept stashed in cruisers or department headquarters, and many schools won't talk about them. But federal data and Associated Press interviews and requests for records reveal that at least 100 U.S. college police forces, and probably many more, have added rifles over the past decade.
The arms buildup has raised tensions on campuses, with debates over the need for such weaponry flaring at schools like Boston's Northeastern University, the University of Maryland and Florida State. A similar outcry over police use of military-style gear erupted in 2014 after the violence that broke out in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police say rifles offer more firepower, longer range and greater accuracy than handguns.
"A bad shot with a rifle is better than a good shot with a handgun," said Skip Frost, who until February was deputy chief of police at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which offers a semi-automatic rifle to every officer.
Some colleges have made the weapons available to SWAT-type units of officers who respond to risky situations; some have issued the guns to patrol officers. Either way, police are authorized to take up their rifles only in extreme cases, such as a shooting or reports of an armed person.
Most states also require police officers to undergo weapons-proficiency training at least once a year. Many campuses receive training from the FBI and U.S. Justice Department, which teach officers how to move quickly through buildings to take down a shooter.
"The reality is that these are not always handgun situations," said FBI agent Katherine Schweit, the bureau's senior executive in charge of active shooter matters. "We can't tell a university realistically what's acceptable in their community — that's up to them — but we recognize the struggle that every community faces because many of these shooters come to the scene with a long gun."
The federal government provided a glimpse into the spread of rifles in 2014 when it started publicizing a list of military equipment on loan to police forces across the country. The newest figures this year show that 91 campus police forces are armed with 817 rifles that were obtained through the program over the past decade, along with other tactical gear. But colleges can buy firearms directly, as well.
The AP sent records requests this year to 20 of the nation's largest public universities for a list of their guns and for invoices from weapons purchases. Most of them refused, with several of them, such as Arizona State and Ohio State, saying releasing the information would jeopardize campus safety.
There was a time when colleges debated whether campus police should be armed at all. In 2005, about a third of the nation's campus police agencies were unarmed, according to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2012, the last time colleges were surveyed, 75 percent were armed with some type of gun.
Things changed dramatically in the nine years since a student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. For example, after decades without giving guns to its police, Princeton University announced in November that it, too, would equip officers with rifles in case of a campus shooting.
Since Virginia Tech, more carnage has followed: Six dead at Northern Illinois University. Seven more at California's Oikos University. Ten dead last year at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
"As law enforcement, it's our responsibility to be prepared for the worst-case scenario," said Frost, the former deputy chief at Illinois. "If we can't protect ourselves, we can't protect the community."
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press