Guns and Smoking: The irony of health and safety regulations at the University of Idaho.
by Emma Trayte, Minerva Intern
Like many college and university campuses across the country, my Seattle-based school became tobacco free in 2015. As a non-smoker, I was unfazed by this announcement. Not long after, the University of Idaho (UI), where my mother is a tenured professor, made a similar announcement. My mother was flabbergasted, not because she believes in one’s inalienable right to smoke, but because UI also chose to abide by an Idaho State Board of Education policy to allow faculty, students, and others to legally carry concealed firearms on campus. In other words, smoking is banned due to health and safety concerns, but deadly weapons are not.
When concealed carry was first allowed on the UI campus in 2012, my mother responded by purchasing a bulletproof vest and wearing it to class and across campus for the first few weeks of the semester. This did not create a stir, either because students and administration dismissed her as another crazy professor, or maybe because it appeared to be just a snappy vest she wore every day for a month. I’m not sure.
There are eight public colleges and universities in Idaho included under SB 1254—legalizing concealed-carry—and the policy has been in effect since July 1, 2014. To legally have a firearm on campus under the law, you need a valid, enhanced permit to carry a concealed weapon issued by the state of Idaho, and the weapon must be concealed at all times “except in self-defense.” Firearms are not allowed in dorms, residence halls, or entertainment and sporting facilities accommodating a thousand people or more. It is legal to carry a concealed weapon in laboratories with flammable chemicals and in the University’s childcare facilities.
Upon the implementation of UI’s new tobacco-free policy, signs were distributed throughout the campus, reading “For health and safety of our community, UI is proud to be tobacco free.” Further explanation for going tobacco free is listed on the University’s website, including details of smoking’s potential health hazards and the fact that it could be “unpleasant and distracting for nontobacco users.” I would argue that the presence and/or use of firearms in a school setting is distracting, as well as hazardous to one’s health.
In response to this irony, my mother chose to pose her question directly to the masses: “What about the guns?” was seen scrawled across the aforementioned tobacco-free signs throughout the campus, written in jumbo permanent marker, with health and safety circled for emphasis. (How do I know it was a jumbo-size marker? Because it was taken from my personal stock of craft supplies.)
It took slightly over two months in 2014 for Idaho to legalize concealed-carry on campuses. To ban tobacco, it took almost seven years. The University’s decision on guns was initially black and white: weapons were legal under the SB 1254 set of criteria. Faculty need not talk about it in class nor address it in syllabi.
There is little documentation of these university recommendations to faculty; they were simply communicated by word of mouth. But my mother remembers. She argued that the safe environment of her classroom was compromised. In her classes, students discuss race, class, gender, faith traditions, politics, sex, and death. What if a troubled concealed carrier was offended by some of these ideas?
Like my mother, I believe this campus policy threatens student safety and promotes vigilante justice. It operates under the logic that unsafe gun carriers are pervasive enough to warrant more people carrying weapons in self-defense. But I and many others believe that the presence of deadly weapons creates a potentially unsafe environment regardless of who has them, with extenuating circumstances applied to law enforcement. Fear of guns is not, in my opinion, a valid reason to obtain a gun.
Although the efforts of my mother seemed to go unnoticed at first, the cover of the 2016 October issue of the UI student magazine Blot featured a point-blank image of a handgun and an accompanying article highlighting different points of view on concealed carry. It concluded with a call for bringing the subject out into the open and talking about it. This was the start of a campus-wide debate.
By the following spring, the University had rewritten its policy and incoming freshman were unambiguously told that they are not to carry guns on campus. The UI website now explicitly states that firearms are banned from campus with “limited exceptions” and that the threatening use of any kind of weapon will not be tolerated.
My mother has always been conscientious, logical, and above all persistent. Her recognition of a counterintuitive policy that not only endangered her classroom but set a precedent enabling gun violence put in motion a grass-roots movement for institutional reform (in a red state no less). This is an example of peaceful protest, of persistence, and of how it pays to be a little bit kooky in the face of bureaucracy.