Locked and Loaded 

What 'guns-on-campus' mean for Idaho

Emily Walton, co-founder of the Idaho Coalition to Keep Guns Off Campus: "We need to change our strategy--start focusing on November."

Patrick Sweeney

Emily Walton, co-founder of the Idaho Coalition to Keep Guns Off Campus: "We need to change our strategy--start focusing on November."

Jeff Decker, a student majoring in construction management at Boise State University, believes guns have a place in the hands--or, rather, holsters--of Boise State students. Prior to transferring to Boise State in the fall of 2013, Decker attended Manchester Community College in Manchester, Conn. In March 2013, a student there reported to police that she'd seen a gun tucked into another student's waistband. The police locked down the campus for hours in search of the armed student. During the lockdown, an officer was wounded when his weapon accidentally discharged.

"I have the right to protect myself," Decker said. "I don't want to wait 10-15 minutes for the police to respond."

Decker's story illustrates how seriously guns are taken on university campuses, and how polarizing the issue can be. Over the past few weeks, SB 1254, which allows retired police officers and holders of enhanced concealed carry permits to wear their weapons in certain areas of Idaho university campuses, cruised through the Idaho Statehouse. There, it was universally opposed in testimony by Idaho's university presidents, their legal counsel, and the police and security forces that serve campus communities. It was supported by some faculty and students like Decker, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.

As Boise Weekly went to press, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter was poised to sign the so-called guns-on-campus bill into law. It was designed to bring parts of Idaho's institutions of higher learning closer to the fold of the Second Amendment, but in Idaho, where guns are comparatively commonplace, its passage means substantial changes to the state's universities. Campus officials will, soon enough, begin ramping up security infrastructure while political action committees seek to unseat legislators who voted for the bill.

Meanwhile the numbers of new, renewed and duplicate concealed carry licenses being issued in Ada County have decreased compared to 2013. In January and February 2014, 441 new concealed carry permits were issued, 351 were renewed and 30 were duplicated. In all of 2013, 4,877 new such permits were issued, although the county doesn't track which are enhanced permits. In Latah County, home of the University of Idaho, there are 24 enhanced permits and 10 applications for enhanced permits are in process. Statewide, 1,128 of the enhanced permits have been issued.

Enhanced permits are transferable between Idaho counties, and the number of permits issued in Ada or Latah counties don't necessarily reflect the numbers of enhanced permit holders on Idaho campuses, which is why Moscow Chief of Police David Duke, whose department coordinates with the University of Idaho's campus security, is recommending an expansion of police presence and updated security infrastructure there. That would mean metal detector wands at Kibbie Dome events, educational courses to inform students about the presence of guns and gun safety, and possibly raising the number of police officers on campus from two to six to provide 24-hour coverage. The officers alone might cost the university an additional $500,000 per year, though any changes there are still in the planning stage.

"We'll be working with the university administration and emergency management to see if they want additional officers. They're working within their structure to determine what they should do with their security," Duke said.

At Boise State, a rationale for plans to update campus security was outlined in a memo by Director of Campus and Police Services Jon Uda prior to the passage of the bill. Campus security, he wrote, "should be the first priority and the first attempt at a solution to the supposed problem" of student safety.

"With guns prohibited on campus, any situations involving a firearm are an immediate 911 emergency call. ... Officers will now have to be trained in 'good gun v. bad gun' situations," he wrote.

In the memo, Uda outlined the costs of the various measures he recommends Boise State put in place. Already the Boise Police Department, which holds the contract for Boise State police coverage, has requested an increase in its contract rate. If approved, in 2015 Boise State would pay BPD $275,000; in 2016, that would increase to $305,000. Additionally, $774,210 would be needed to update security at Boise State's various venues and the Department of Public Safety estimates that salary and benefits, operating expenses and new facilities expenses would total $895,050 in 2015 alone.

At the University of Colorado-Boulder, concealed weapons have been allowed on campus since 2011. Since then, the violent crime rate on campus has decreased. According to Commander Robert Axmacher of the CU-Boulder Police, the real effect of allowing guns on university campuses hasn't been an increase or decrease in violence, or an influx of safety-related security costs, but something less tangible.

"Since 2011, what we've seen is increased discussion on the topic. We haven't had any event, at least on the Boulder campus, that would indicate that we've had an increase or decrease in campus safety [due to guns on campus]," he said.

Nevertheless, intangibles are a concern to campus administrators at Boise State. The university's director of government relations, former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, worries that having concealed weapons on campus will affect professor, student and athlete recruitment, and that guns have no place at Idaho's universities.

"I had one professor tell me, 'All my kids are going to get A's.' I think it changes the whole climate," Newcomb said.

But just because guns were forbidden on campus didn't mean they weren't there. Matthew Townsend said he's been carrying his .380 Bodyguard semi-automatic pistol for two years. Townsend isn't a Boise State student, but said he carries his weapon on campus four to five times a month in the fall and spring, and at least twice a month during the summer, and said he knows of "more than five, but less than 15" people who carry their concealed weapons onto campus daily.

"Since there is no actual law prohibiting weapons on campus, I carry without fear of legal prosecution," he said prior to the passage of SB 1254.

The law aims to take guns out of the shadows of Idaho campuses, but students, faculty and activists are already working to show that enacting legislation without heeding education or law enforcement stakeholders has political consequences. Until the passage of the bill, the Coalition to Keep Guns Off Campus focused on collecting signatures and letters from the people affected by the law. The coalition's members are retooling, creating a political action committee to energize voters against yea-voting legislators. University student body leadership organizations are communicating, and Boise political organizer Emily Walton said she and others are looking beyond voicing disapproval and taking action.

"We need to change our strategy--start focusing on November," she said, referring to legislative elections that will take place at the end of the year.

That strategy will likely mean mailings and students knocking on doors in legislative districts 10, home to Caldwell Republican Sen. Jim Rice and Republican Reps. Brandon Hixon and Darrell Bolz; and 15, the seat of Boise Republican Sen. Fred Martin and Republican Reps. Lynn Luker and Patrick McDonald, all of whom voted in favor of the bill and whose districts contain large student populations.

While a handful of legislators may be vulnerable in November, however, the law may not: Citing the amount of time and money it takes to mount a successful referendum in Idaho, Walton said that putting the question to Idaho voters of whether students should be able to bring guns on campuses, regardless of the permit status of who carries them or whether they're carried openly or concealed, is unlikely to happen in November 2014--just seven and a half months away.

"I don't think we could get the signatures in that time," she said.

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