In more than 35 years of observing the Idaho Legislature I am hard pressed to remember another time when really controversial legislation – in this case the “guns on campus” bill – became law in the face of such wide-spread opposition from the people and institutions most directly impacted.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature on the contentious legislation was no surprise. He signaled his support early but, given the unanimous opposition from college and university presidents, the Otter-appointed State Board of Education (SBOE), an array of student leaders and many in law enforcement, it can be counted as a mild surprise that the bill ever got to the governor. Similar legislation has died in the past.
University presidents argued that allowing concealed weapons on a college campus would inevitably lead to more overall security concerns, greater costs for law enforcement and might well impact recruitment of faculty, students and athletes. Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a conservative who is also a pragmatic guy, was known during his long tenure as Speaker for killing his share of crackpot ideas. Newcomb now manages government relations for Boise State University and he told the Boise Weekly, “I had one professor tell me, ‘All my kids are going to get A’s.’ I think it changes the whole climate.”
But back to the dynamic of a part-time, citizen legislature and a governor willing to ignore the wholesale opposition of the people closest to the kids and issues on the state’s higher education campuses. More than ever the state legislature considers itself a collection of the 105 smartest people in Idaho. They’re experts on everything and never in doubt on anything. The SBOE says on its website that it “is a policy-making body for all public education in Idaho and provides general oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Trustees for state-sponsored public four year colleges and universities and the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.”
That statement is clearly not true. Some trustee that can’t impact such a fundamental issue of campus policy and safety. Some oversight, particularly when the legislature is willing to substitute its “judgment” for that of the people legally and Constitutionally charged with that responsibility. The State Board was on record early opposing the guns on campus bill and the college presidents weighed in on this issue more forcefully than on almost any issue – including budgets – that I can remember. They might as well have been shouting down a dry well.
In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting – the seven year anniversary is in April – where a lone, mentally-ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, attorney Brian J. Siebel, then a senior lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested a variety of questions regard guns on campus in an article published in the George Mason University’s Civil Rights Law Journal. Siebel’s questions are as valid today as when the Virginia Tech shootings were dominating the news in 2007.
Do student want guns in classrooms, Siebel asked? Apparently not if you believe elected Idaho student leaders. Will students feel safer if the person next to them in chem lab is packing? Will parents be inclined to support a decision for their little Jennifer or Cameron to attend schools where guns are openly allowed, or given the attitude of the legislature, openly encouraged? What about the pressure, academic and otherwise, that many kids feel during those formative college years when grades clash with ready access to booze and worse? And will more guns on campus contribute to more suicide now the third leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24? All those questions still apply to Idaho and the handful of other states that allow guns on campus. These are the kinds of questions higher education policy makers deal with every day as they worry about the welfare of young people in their charge, but these questions were largely ignored or certainly given scant attention in the recent Idaho debate. And why is that?
It’s impossible not to conclude amid the sober sounding claims that guns on campus is merely a straight forward Constitutional issue – it isn’t, that when the National Rifle Association shows up touting a gun bill the NRA’s legislative soldiers fall immediately in line. No phalanx of college presidents or concerned students can trump the political power of the gun lobby.
In year’s past the kind of opposition that came together to oppose the NRA-endorsed Idaho legislation may well have prompted a few sober-minded lawmakers to counsel a go-slow approach or, as some opponents suggested this year, a year of cooling off to really consider the ramifications of such lawmaking. But such is the lock (and load) hold of the NRA on legislators in many states that any departure – any departure at all – from the gun lobby line is considered gun rights treason.
The Gun Report blog of the New York Times reports today that, “the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., last week, and after equating freedom and individual rights with gun ownership, he painted a dire picture of a country with no defense but its armed citizenry.
“Freedom has never needed our defense more than now,” LaPierre thundered from the stage, as the Times put it. “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”
This is the rhetoric of a dystopic Hollywood movie where a handful of heavily armed super heroes hold off the evil invaders. The only sane people in Wayne’s world are those armed to the teeth, because in the richest country on the globe with a long-enduring tradition of representative democracy, we can no longer trust the police, the courts, and our elected officials to keep our freedoms. Such is the mind set of an armed America and those policymakers who keep marching in lock step with the gun lobby, while completely ignoring the bloody reality of what the NRA’s agenda increasingly means.
The Times gun blog today recounts some recent headline gun news:
“A 2-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found at a home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Tuesday night. It is unclear how the toddler got hold of the weapon. No arrests have been made.”
“Wesley Pruitt, 13, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s home in Rains County, Tex., Wednesday afternoon. The victim and his 15-year-old friend were in a bedroom when the older boy pulled the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun, not realizing it was loaded. No word on charges.”
“A 57-year-old man was shot in the face during a home invasion robbery in Sandpoint, Idaho, late Monday. Three men were arrested after an 11-hour standoff with police.”
And so it goes day after day.
The Gun Violence Archive reports as of today 2008 Americans have died in gun-related incidents since January 1, 2014 and another 3,305 have been injured. We don’t know how many guns there really are in America, but various estimates say 270 million, at least. That number grows every day. Don’t you feel safer?
Rolling Stone magazine recently offered some statistics to back up a claim that just given the numbers regarding issues like health care, prison populations and gun violence, the United States more-and-more resembles a third-world, developing county.
“The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders,” the magazine reported, “and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.”
In the America of 2014, with lawmakers in both parties in a perpetual defensive crouch to ward off any NRA-inspired assault should they dare question any element of the gun lobby’s agenda, such facts are not merely inconvenient, but more shockingly not even discussed. In the armed America of 2014, the only acceptable political answer is more guns in more places, including now in Idaho the college library and who knows were else next time.