The Pentagon’s 1033 program provides free military surplus equipment, from chemical protective suits to anti-mine vehicles to M-16 rifles, to police departments. The program has generated its share of debate since police in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer used military surplus equipment to control crowds during the protests that erupted over the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police.

Maine police departments, from Wells to Van Buren, have received $13.1 million worth of military equipment through the 1033 program, including rifles, armored vehicles and snowshoes. Three Maine universities also received surplus equipment, joining nearly 130 university police departments across the country, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, including one Florida university that was given a grenade launcher.

Three University of Maine System campuses received surplus equipment, though none received a grenade launcher. What they did receive were semi-automatic M-16 rifles: three for the University of Maine in Orono, valued at $360; seven for the University of Maine at Farmington, valued at $840; and four for the University of Southern Maine, valued at $1,996, according to a database of surplus equipment compiled by The Marshall Project.

Why did three Maine universities acquire military rifles? The campuses serve thousands of students, and campus officials say the 1033 program allowed them to acquire the rifles to protect students. The 1033 program started in the early 1990s as a way to supply federal and state law enforcement agencies with equipment needed to carry out anti-drug missions. It later expanded to all law enforcement agencies for “purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission,” according to a Pentagon website on 1033.

“Like other campus police departments, UMPD officers have the potential to face any law enforcement challenge,” University of Maine Director of Public Relations Margaret Nagle wrote in an email. “The acquisition saved money and provided the opportunity for law enforcement agencies like UMPD to replace shotguns with rifles.”

Brock Caton, director of public safety at the University of Maine at Farmington, said in an email that “our student body has the potential to be some of the future leaders of our community, state and country, and it’s my department’s responsibility to ensure they have a safe and positive learning environment to obtain their goals,” he said.

According to the campuses’ annual security reports, violent crime is rare. No murder has been recorded at the Orono, Farmington or southern Maine campuses in the last several years. For the most part, the campuses’ police officers encounter drug and liquor laws violations.

But university officials said the rifles have prepared the campuses for an incident no one wants to happen: an active shooter.

The specter of an active shooter has led many campuses to acquire more powerful weapons. In 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre, in which 33 people died, came as a shock to schools across the nation. It prompted public safety and campus police departments to re-examine protocols and training for active-shooter scenarios.

The 1033 program provided a chance for departments with low budgets to acquire more sophisticated equipment to prepare for such a scenario.

“[The M-16s are] intended to be used in only rare situations,” said Christopher Quint, executive director of public affairs at the University of Southern Maine, who referenced the Virginia Tech shooting as one of those rare situations.

While mass shootings at universities are rare, anti-gun violence group Everytown estimates that between Dec. 15, 2012, and Dec. 9, 2014, there were 94 school shootings from coast to coast; 45 occurred on a university campus. In the most high-profile school shootings, which include Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine, the shooters used powerful automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Caton, the public safety director in Farmington, said that before acquiring the four rifles through the 1033 program “my department was improperly equipped to handle a possible active shooter incident on campus with only our handguns.”

Until then, the rifles aren’t getting much use. To date, University of Southern Maine campus police “haven’t had a need” to use the rifles, said Quint. Until they do, they keep the weapons secured at the university’s Gorham campus.

Ditto for the University of Maine at Farmington, Caton said.

Meanwhile, the University of Maine has converted two of its three rifles to fire paintballs for officer training. As with the other campuses, no situation has arisen in Orono in which the UMaine police have needed the other rifle.