April 27, 2009 photo, University of Georgia police officers
patrol the campus in Athens, Ga., with a semi-automatic
rifle during a search for professor George Zinkhan,
suspected of killing his ex-wife and two others near campus
two days earlier. Federal data and Associated Press
interviews and requests for records reveal that at least 100
college police agencies have added rifles over the past
BOSTON — Once a rarity on
campuses, semi-automatic rifles are becoming a standard part of
the arsenal for college police 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 stashed away in cruisers or at department
headquarters, and many schools won't talk about them. But federal
data and Associated Press interviews and requests for records
reveal that over the past decade, at least 100 U.S. college police
agencies, and probably many more, have introduced rifles or
acquired more of them.
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.
Dec. 2, 2015 photo, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill police officers stand down and return to their patrol
cars after answering a second man with a rifle call adjacent
to the school's campus in Chapel Hill, N.C. Federal data and
Associated Press interviews and requests for records reveal
that at least 100 college police agencies have added rifles
over the past decade.
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."
Bill Taylor, president of the
International Association of Campus Law Enforcement
Administrators, said he hasn't heard of any case in which a campus
officer fired a rifle on the job. But police have broken out the
weapons several times.
In December, for example, police at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill responded with
rifles after a false report of a gunman on campus. At least one
Florida State officer responded to a 2014 shooting with a rifle
but didn't shoot the gunman because other officers were in the
way. Police killed the shooter with handguns.
On some campuses, protesters have
argued that black students face a greater risk of being shot with
one of these weapons.
At Northeastern, the acquisition of
semi-automatic rifles was criticized this year by Boston police,
who said that the guns are unnecessary with city police so close
to campus and that officers could end up shooting each other in
the confusion. They also said the use of such high-powered weapons
in a crowded neighborhood raises the risk of innocent people
getting hit by stray fire.
"I actually don't feel as
safe," said Chelsea Canedy, a junior at Northeastern who
leads a student coalition opposed to the rifles. "You're
seeing across the United States this militarization of many
In a 2012 survey by the U.S. Bureau
of Justice Statistics, 75 percent of the nation's campus police
forces were armed with some type of gun, up from 68 percent in
2005. The 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student killed
32 people, is widely believed to have played a role.
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
Documents provided by four
universities, though, illustrate a rapid buildup of rifles.
Florida State bought 26 semi-automatic Bushmaster rifles from
private sellers between 2012 and 2014, along with 10 other rifles
acquired through the military surplus program. The University of
Illinois bought 47 AR-15 rifles in that span. Purdue University
received 25 rifles from the surplus program in 2007 and separately
bought 17 more, records show.
The University of Wisconsin in
Madison spent $11,000 on AR-15s in 2010, plus $6,000 on other
rifles over the next four years.
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
In the nine years 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."