PITTSBURGH – One side called it naive to think that keeping guns away will make Pennsylvania's state-owned universities safer.
The other side could hardly have disagreed more, asking how effectively professors can teach if they suspect someone in class is armed.
But Thursday, as the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education announced an indefinite delay in setting a new weapons policy, both sides seemed at least to find common ground in their belief the policy as drafted is flawed, either because it is too restrictive or is not restrictive enough.
Word of the delay came at a hearing in Harrisburg, streamed live online, to gauge public sentiment about the controversial policy.
As recommended by a system task force, the policy would bar offensive weapons including firearms from buildings, sporting events and outdoor gatherings, plus all other "sensitive areas" across the 14 universities. They include the Western Pennsylvania campuses of California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities.
The system's board of governors was to vote Jan. 23.
However, even before the first speaker was introduced, Chancellor Frank T. Brogan acknowledged that complex sentiments on a topic that has sparked controversy and legal battles nationally necessitated taking more time.
He said leaders "have a responsibility to look at the unfolding legalities surrounding this issue."
The vote "will not be in January," spokesman Kenn Marshall later confirmed. "No date (is) scheduled at this point."
State system officials have said they want a policy ready for the 2014-15 academic year. The schools enroll 112,000 students.
State police data show system schools have 70 percent fewer serious crimes than the state average, and that weapon use, including firearms, "are among the lowest of all incidents reported," according to the system.
Two dozen attended the hearing at the system's headquarters. Others submitted written comments.
Among them was John Lee, president of the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association. He said studies do not support the notion that creating additional "gun-free" zones improves safety.
"Common sense, if such a thing exists in today's 'political correct' society, would also speak to the fallacy of 'gun free zones,'" he wrote. "If you were to plan to murder a large number of people, where would you go to do the 'dirty deed'? Need I answer that question?"
John Haller of the Pennsylvania chapter of Students for Concealed Carry called the proposal an example of a policy driven by emotion, misperceptions and cultural bias.
"The notion that banning lawfully carried firearms on college campuses results in a safer environment relies on two naive leaps of faith," he wrote.
"The first is that disarming law abiding students who are capable and willing of carrying firearms for self defense will somehow make students safer as a whole," he said. "The second, of course, is that criminals or others determined to commit violent acts would actually care what the regulation said."
Those seeking a total campus ban, among them faculty, students and groups advocating against gun violence, called the policy unenforceable and so vague it could invite the very court challenges the system hoped to avoid by allowing guns in open spaces, including parking lots.
Weapons would further escalate confrontations and are not advisable where alcohol and youth are in abundance, they said. One asked if metal detectors in campus buildings would be installed.
Steve Hicks, a professor and president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said the educational dynamic changes when a professor suspects a student in class is armed.
He said campuses "are filled with minors who are supposed to be protected from the dangers" of weapons, including freshmen under 18, high school students in advanced placement courses and those at campus and other events.
"The only acceptable policy is one that bans the carrying of guns in all areas unless by a security officer or authorized personnel," he said.
"The myth that an armed campus community will be safer must be rejected for what it is: a ploy by the gun lobby to expand the right to carry concealed firearms into sensitive areas," wrote Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire Pa., a coalition of mayors, police chiefs, faith leaders, community organizations and individual Pennsylvanians against gun violence.
A number of state system universities previously had outright campus bans, even in open spaces, but modified the rules after attorneys for the state system in 2011 advised those schools that total bans were not legally enforceable.
The lawyers offered their advice after individuals, including at least one student, challenged existing campus rules, officials said.
About half the state system schools, including Edinboro, California and Slippery Rock universities, modified their policies to ones closer to what is now proposed.