BOISE — The hot-button S.E.C.U.R.E. Idaho Campuses Act — a bill that would allow concealed weapons on state university and college campuses — hit the Senate State Affairs Committee for public hearing Wednesday and received split testimony.
After more than two-and-a-half hours of testimony, the committee voted 7-2 along party lines to pass the bill on to the full Senate with recommendation that it pass. Only two senators, Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Sen. Elliott Werk, D-Boise, voted against the bill.
Dakota Moore, Idaho State liaison of the National Rifle Association, presented on behalf of the NRA in support of the bill.
“Qualifying college and university students will no longer be denied their Second Amendment rights when stepping on campuses,” Moore said. “It’s time.”
The original text of the bill denied carrying firearms into a public venue with more than 2,500 seats. After gaining input from state college and university officials, McKenzie lowered the limit to 1,000, which, Moore said, makes the bill a better option for campuses to increase safety.
Moore used Boise State University’s open-air Bronco Stadium to test the structural confines of what constitutes a “public venue.” He said inside the walls of the stadium do indeed qualify as within the venue and concealed weapons are prohibited. But the parking lot does not qualify, and guns would be allowed in locked cars or carried.
He said thinking guns are illegal on campuses is a commonly-believed myth — there are no metal detectors one must walk through before stepping on a public campus. He said the university’s firearms policy only applies to individuals governed by the university — students, staff and faculty. He said it’s an “incredulous disparity” to ban guns from the university students when such strict anti-gun laws don’t often govern students at elementary and high schools.
“You’re telling me that a kindergarten teacher can have a firearm locked in their vehicle … but a university professor can’t?” Moore said. “That is correct.”
Sen. Elliot Werk said the bill is opening the door for more pressing safety issues. He said he understands threats of gun theft, but on-campus suicide and intimidation are the bigger issues.
“We have instructors teaching controversial subjects, we have students that might take issue with other students during controversial discussions,” Werk said. “We have the intimidation factor — you don’t need to show a weapon to intimidate through the act of actually carrying them.”
Moore said he recognized the daily pressures, but doesn’t believe they play a role in making campuses less safe with the introduction of concealed firearms.
“This type of intimidation and pressure isn’t unique to college and university campuses,” Moore said. “I would say that these issues don’t change between college and graduation.”
Committee member Sen. Michelle Stennett, said parents have come to her with concerns of the safety of their children in the classroom. She asked Moore whether he was comfortable with a situation in which students aren’t able to participate in the educational experience or offer ideas when they know some students may be carrying a concealed weapon.
Moore said the bill is based on statistics, many of those centered on the safety of students when firearms are introduced to campus.
“Statistics show this isn’t an issue that often happens — (a dangerous incident) is just as likely to happen in any other location, as well as a university or college campus,” Moore said. “It protects more than it harms. I think this bill will make our colleges and universities safe.”
Stennett also asked whether informal university gatherings on lawns or green spaces will be protected as gun-free zones in the bill. She said hundreds of students gather often in these areas and could breed an environment for violence if firearms are involved.
Moore said the university lawns would not be covered in the bill and would still be weapons zones.
Utah, Oregon, Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin have all passed legislation allowing concealed weapons on campus.
“You don’t see the violent crime increase in these states,” Moore said. “Would we rather no one be armed?”
Moore presented for 40 minutes. Following his presentation, Chairman Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, limited testimony to three minutes each.
University of Idaho Interim President Don Burnett gave testimony on behalf of UI and the Higher Education Presidents Council, the group of presidents of Idaho campuses and universities. The presidents’ council sided with the State Board of Education last week in rejection of the bill.
Burnett said the average Idaho college campus hosts a wide range of inhabitants, and the safety of students and visitors alike must be recognized.
“Many of our campuses contain day care facilities and host field trips with K-12 students,” Burnett said. “Bringing guns on campus is simply not a good idea. We’re committed to providing a safe living and learning environment.”
Boise State University psychology professor Kimberly McAdams said the bill couldn’t be more timely. What began as a police report of a suicidal student on campus turned into what she said was an immediate threat to her life. McAdams said the police told her the student had become fixated on her and wanted to kill her.
McAdams said the disturbed student was in one of her psychology classes that met in a classroom with only one door and no windows.
“The only way we would have stood a chance is if one of us had been armed and would have been able to protect ourselves,” McAdams said.
McAdams urged the committee to disregard what the group of school presidents had said in rejection of the bill, because they don’t find themselves in the front lines of student confrontation.
“(Administrators) are not the ones in the line of fire — they’re not the ones in the classroom,” McAdams said. “Please give me a fighting change to save my life and the lives of my students.”
ASUI President Max Cowan sat in on the hearing with intent to give testimony, but wasn’t able to due to time constraints. Cowan said the decision needs to be left to the university and to students — the people affected most by the bill.
“I’m furious that the committee didn’t hear from students — that they managed to get through 13 individuals and not a single one of them was a student at any of the universities in Idaho,” Cowan said. “But they were willing to listen to everyone but those immediately affected.”
Cowan said ASUI is hosting focus groups on the legislation to gather student opinions.
Tony Snesko, ex-Los Angeles police officer and retired private inspector, said empowering students with firearms is an important safety measure.
“We ask universities all the time, ‘Why aren’t your security officers armed? Why aren’t they trained? What happens when people start shooting?'”Snesko said.
Snesko said there is no reason for security guards on campus, if they’re not armed.
“Untrained and unarmed security guards are babysitters,” Snesko said, holding up his bumper sticker. “Gun-free zones are victim zones.”
Boise police officer Paul Jagosh also testified in support of the bill. He said having armed students on campus will increase safety when crimes are happening in real time.
“Police don’t stop crimes, they show up after,” Jagosh said.
Jagosh told the committee of a survey taken on officers in both rural and urban areas that found 86 percent of active police officers think incidences involving fatalities could have been prevented if a present law-abiding citizen had been armed.
“Listen to the experts — we deal with guns on a daily basis,” Jagosh said. “We’re the ones who train for it. We believe it’s a good bill.”
Deanna Sailor, an employee at BSU and concealed weapons permit holder said pushing the bill forward is a scary step for students and parents alike.
“I’m coming to you as a parent … I’m speaking from the heart,” Sailor said. “I just don’t see how it’s logical or responsible to have guns on campus.”
Sailor said she has put five years into training how to best handle her weapon and how to disarm an aggravated shooter, but couldn’t imaging the stress of being responsible if other lives were at stake. She said police are trained on when and when not to shoot — training that can’t be done well with just one permit class.
Communications and Legislative Affairs Officer for the State Board of Education Marilyn Whitney testified against the bill. She said the policy would fracture an already beneficial set of policies for students.
“Our collective campuses are among the safest place in our society,” Whitney said. “This is true even though most college student are at the ages to most likely engage in violence. The reality is that America’s and Idaho’s colleges and universities are exceptionally safe places.”
Gary Margolis, longtime police officer and security professional, said this bill will not improve safety. Margolis works within a firm that specializes in evaluating factors that go into creating unsafe environments, especially academic environments. He said his firm has worked with schools following mass shootings, and has also helped institutions adopt firearms laws that do increase safety.
Through his experience studying the affects of firearms in the college environment, he said two things have become clear — students are generally safer than the outside population, and firearms are rarely involved in on-campus crimes.
“This bill is likely to have no positive effect on campus safety,” Margolis said. “Stats continue to show that students are safer on campus than off. There’s no evidence that they show guns make campuses any safer.”
Margolis said students with guns are more likely to create an unsafe environment for themselves and fellow students.
“This bill would be creating an environment inconsistent with quality education,” Margolis said.
UI has an official police substation to store guns just off campus, but not all universities share similar setups — some colleges don’t offer firearm storage facilities at all. He said students often begin to store them in cars or in residence halls, and the issue has then shifted from security to theft.
“There are many practical issues — theft is the most prevalent crime on campuses today,” Margolis said. “A lethal force option may not be the best tool for our campuses.”
Chloe Rambo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CRchloerambo