This My Turn is an expansion of my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on SB 176, “An Act relating to the regulation of firearms and knives by the University of Alaska,” which has recently advanced from Committee. I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Alaska, Southeast. I write as a concerned faculty member strongly opposed to Senate Bill 176.
I am not anti-gun ownership or use. I grew up in small community and recognize their value for hunting and protection. I have been mugged, unarmed, at gunpoint. However, institutions of higher education are not the appropriate setting to wage a battle over rights to possess firearms. Many of my students are struggling to find their adult identity and develop a sense of self. This does not need to be complicated by adding another potentially explosive variable into their transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Supporters create hypothetical scenarios where an armed vigilante emerges as victorious in the face of danger, but they refuse to consider non-storybook endings to that fictional scenario. Even for proficient gun owners, what experience do they have with mental illness, what knowledge do they have of campus security or the university landscape, what skill do they have in aiming for a gunmen in a chaotic classroom or cafeteria full of visiting, confused and screaming school children?
Proponents of gun presence on university campuses often invoke the Virginia Tech shootings as evidence of the need to allow armed students, staff and faculty. I am a graduate of Virginia Tech. I had friends and former professors who were on campus—researching and teaching—the day of the shootings. I could not get in touch with them and I watched the news anxiously waiting for updates. I was also a resident advisor while at Virginia Tech. In fact, for a year, I lived and worked in West Ambler Johnston, in the actual dorm room where two people were killed. This act of gun violence was horrific.
However, none of this reversed my position regarding firearms on college campuses. Instead, it made me—and it should have made others—aware of the complexity of the factors that shape criminal action. My concern is that the legislative response with this bill is not reflective of any systematic understanding of the roots of violence on university campuses. Instead, I am concerned that this bill is ideologically driven with a narrow conceptualization of freedom and liberty that has nothing to do the operations and needs of Alaska’s universities, or of the safety of the thousands of students, faculty, staff, visitors and minors who are on Alaskan campuses on any given day. The argument put forth by Senator Coghill, “To restrict a fundamental right has to have a very compelling reason,” ignores that collective goods—consider water, air, or even fisheries management—often restrict an individual’s right for the best of society. Further, the belief that because nothing has yet happened in Colorado or Utah where concealed carry exists on campuses translates to guaranteed safety in our state is Pollyannaish at best.
At the March 10th hearing I attended, several proposed changes were made to the bill – that it referred only to concealed carry and that a short training be required. We were asked to consider these changes in our testimony. As I stated then and reemphasize here, changing the bill to concealed carry does not change my mind or alleviate my concerns, even with the suggestion of a four-hour safety-training course. This is less time than I expect students to study for an exam – and their life and the lives of others does not depend on passing that exam. At this point, additional proposed changes include allowing guns in resident halls and requiring that permit holders must be over 21. Space limits prevent me from detailing the horrors that may come from guns in dorms.
I am joining many Alaskans and members of the University of Alaska community who stand in opposition to this bill. When I testified on March 10th against this bill, student leaders from UAS, UAF and UAA did the same. I strongly urge you to listen to the voices of those most directly threatened by the passage of this bill.
• Lora Vess is a sociology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast.