Robert Ehlert: Idaho campus gun bill deserves closer scrutiny

© 2014 Idaho StatesmanFebruary 16, 2014 

There is a temptation to approach the guns on campus issue in the Idaho Legislature by simply reciting the Second Amendment, gathering the faithful, voting, locking and loading, and telling the administrators of the eight public campuses involved to stand down because there is a new sheriff in town.

I hope there is time and appetite for more information and debate before this happens.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, is sponsor of SB 1254 and chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee. He advocates that retired law enforcement officers or those age 21 with an enhanced concealed-carry permit that requires “an extensive background check and training” be allowed to carry a firearm on campus.

Does an eight-hour class during which applicants fire off 98 rounds seem like enough training to you? Though this goes for any enhanced concealed permit on or off campus, we haven’t had this debate as applied to college kids.

In my mind, campuses are different worlds. McKenzie seems to recognize this because the bill would not allow qualified people to carry in residence halls or in large arenas. This has not been enough to appease school administrators — all of whom reject the bill. Beyond that, the jury is out on what new problems and expenses would arise from managing this influx of guns on campus. The now unarmed security guards at Boise State University, for instance, are certainly going to have to consider being armed and trained. How is this going to work at campus locations attached to high schools and businesses around the state?

Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson was prepared to discuss these and other issues Tuesday at McKenzie’s hearing, but gosh, they ran out of time. The star witness last week was the National Rifle Association. Though the NRA’s presentation might have been shorter, critics asked a lot of questions and time slipped away.

As a result, Masterson and other law enforcement officials from college towns were not allowed to testify. So today, we are giving voice in the form of two Guest Opinions: one from Masterson and one from Ross Perkins, a member of the BSU faculty who was present during the shooting tragedy that claimed 32 lives at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Earlier we published McKenzie’s Guest Opinion about his bill, and we will be mindful to publish other opinions from all sides of the issue.

I think we’re all in agreement we don’t want to see a shooting tragedy on any Idaho campus — or anywhere else. But as you consider more facts than the wording of the Second Amendment, I hope we can begin to understand why there are certain places where guns are not allowed — perhaps a lot more training might be necessary.

Though McKenzie quotes John Locke — “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom” — and argues that his bill preserves and enlarges freedom in a limited and thoughtful manner by overturning the ban of guns on public land (to include Idaho campuses), I don’t see him and the NRA seeking the same for such public lands as courthouses, or fighting the federal government to get guns on airplanes and in airports.

Why don’t we get real and consider the remote possibility that guns aren’t a good idea in some instances and places? Why don’t we open our ears and listen to what law enforcement and others might bring to the discussion to make this work better?

Mass shootings are on a terrible upswing. The FBI reports that occurrence went from 5 per year to 15 per year between 2000 and 2012. One third of these have occurred at educational institutions, but only a fraction of those have played out on college campuses.

I don’t think anything is to be gained by ignoring critics of SB 1254, or lost by hearing the facts skeptics bring to the matter of guns on campus in Idaho.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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