Lines drawn over campus gun bill

Evidence from other states offers little direction on how Idaho should move.

broberts@idahostatesman.comFebruary 11, 2014 

Gov. Butch Otter makes his annual breakfast appearance at the Idaho Press Club in February 2014.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

Idaho, with a long tradition of gun ownership, could soon join a couple of other Western states that have made room on their college campuses for people to carry concealed weapons.

Utah and Colorado, after losing court fights, permitted concealed weapons on their campuses. Officials at two of the states’ largest universities say no problems have resulted.

The 32,000-student University of Utah, where concealed weapons have been allowed for about four years, have had no incidents, said a spokeswoman.

At the 30,000-student University of Colorado in Boulder, concealed weapons were permitted in 2011. “We’ve not seen an increase or decrease in anything we can ... measure,” said Commander Robert Oxmacher of the campus police, who estimates that 150 people have permits.

But Idaho’s university presidents are unanimous in their opposition to the proposal, and one adjunct professor at Boise State University says he may quit if it becomes law.

Moving ahead on guns

State Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, has resurrected and remodeled a bill from 2011 that would allow retired law enforcement personnel and those with enhanced concealed-weapons permits to bring guns onto Idaho campuses, except in dormitories, residence halls and entertainment venues that seat 1,000 or more people.

McKenzie is chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, which will hear the bill Wednesday. He said he has enough support in both houses to pass it and from Gov. Butch Otter.

“I am an advocate of the Second Amendment,” Otter said. “And people don’t lose their constitutional rights when they walk onto a college campus.” At the same time, he said he understands the college presidents’ concerns. “I don’t deny the anxiety presidents are going to have.”

The National Rifle Association and the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police support the bill.

“This legislation is an important step forward in protecting students and faculty on campus through lawful exercise of the Second Amendment,” said Catherine Mortensen, spokeswoman for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “Uniform laws, regulations and policies regarding firearms and weapons on state college and university campuses will improve public safety.”

Idaho’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 1,500 law enforcement officers, backs the bill, too. Responsible gun owners can be helpful in an incident before the police arrive, said Bryan Lovell, Fraternal Order of Police president and a Bonneville Sheriff’s Department sergeant.

“We can’t predict response times of law enforcement,” he said. “A lot of times it is over before we get there.”

No reason to change

But Bob Kustra, Boise State University president, finds little comfort in the lack of problems at the University of Utah and the University of Colorado.

“Thank goodness they have not had any instances,” Kustra told the Idaho Statesman. “It’s hardly enough reason for Idaho to move in that direction. It only takes one incident for things to go wrong.”

The State Board of Education, students and faculty at Boise State University have all registered disapproval, too.

Brian Greber, a business and economics adjunct professor at Boise State, said the Legislature would put him in harm’s way if it passed the bill. Students can feel stress over their grades or professors, and that would be amplified by the potential for violence with guns on campus, he said.

“You know you have a pressure cooker,” he said.

He said he would leave his job before being caught in that.

Greber, who spent 18 years at Weyerhaeuser Co., said businesses typically don’t allow guns in the work environment because of the stress employment can create. That same stress exists on campuses, where students’ futures can depends on grades, he said.

“The potential for impulse responses under the stress is all too great,” Greber wrote in a letter to the State Affairs Committee. “The potential to do harm to themselves, their peers, or to faculty is not worth this hollow appeal to ‘Constitutional rights.’”

Some gun supporters tout Oregon as another example of a Western state where guns are permitted on campus. But Oregon higher-education officials say it’s not.

In 2011, the Oregon University System lost a lawsuit that challenged a statewide administrative rule intended to keep guns off campus. School officials didn’t give up: They now use internal policies and schools’ right to control property to limit guns.

The policies say anyone who has a contractual relationship with a university cannot bring a gun on campus. Contractual relationships include students, faculty, staff members, vendors, construction workers, and people attending meetings, conferences or sporting event, said Diane "Di" Saunders, the Oregon University System’s director of communications.

The ban is not total. A person with no contractual relationship with a university can legally walk across its campus carrying a weapon.

Saunders said restrictions keep campuses safe and allow open discussion without fear. “There are so many reasons not to have weapons on any school premises,” she said.

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson declined to comment. A spokeswoman said he is saving his comments for legislators.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, @IDS_BillRoberts

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