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If guns make sense in Alaska college classes, why not in Juneau committee hearings?

Dermot Cole
A bill introduced by Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill would allow the public to carry firearms on University of Alaska campuses around the state. istockphoto

FAIRBANKS -- If Sen. John Coghill of Fairbanks really believes in the Second Amendment, he should admit that his bill to allow guns on college campuses doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Until Coghill amends his bill to allow everyone attending a meeting of his judiciary committee to brandish a shooting iron, he is infringing on the right to keep and bear arms. 

Sen. Charlie Huggins has introduced a bill to designate an official state bolt-action rifle, the pre-1964 Winchester Model 70, which could be a valuable accessory in government circles, like a flag pin or a bolo tie. But unless lawmakers recognize the true meaning of the Second Amendment, there is no chance of getting past the Capitol guards with bolt action rifles, official or otherwise.

Coghill can put himself in the right by allowing guns in all Alaska public facilities, which would save money, eliminating the need for security checkpoints and guards.

If everyone knows that everyone else might be loaded, then everyone will be safe, free in the faith that all are blessed with good intentions, the ability to shoot straight and sound judgment -- surrendering our safety to unknown persons who believe themselves capable of opening fire to kill bad guys quicker than a politician can shout "federal overreach."

“Law-abiding citizens do not lose the fundamental right to protect themselves and others, simply because they enter the grounds of UA campuses,” Coghill says.

Damn straight. And law-abiding citizens, of any age, do not lose their fundamental right to protect themselves and others when they enter a kindergarten class, prepared to open fire. 

To suggest otherwise is to abandon rational thought and fall victim to emotional arguments. 

Trouble is, it's not clear that the Coghill bill is constitutional. The legal opinion produced by the legislative lawyers seems straight out of the school of ambivalence: "While it is not entirely clear, the Legislature may be able to restrict the university from adopting or enforcing policies concerning firearms and knives as the Legislature has done with municipalities, so it is likely that the bill you requested is constitutional."

Clear or not, constitutional or not, let's give Coghill credit for the way he's managed to avoid hearing from emotional people, which is how the supporters of the bill describe those who don't see things their way.

On Wednesday, the bill's "supporting documents" folder on the state website contained 22 letters, all from unemotional people supporting his bill, and 36 unemotional documents backing the bill. When I asked about why there were no documents or letters opposing the bill, one of his staffers said it was because they had received none as of Wednesday.

They were not suppressing any documents, he said, though a 13-page statement in opposition from the university had not yet been posted. He added that it would be included prior to a Monday hearing. A number of documents were added Saturday, including several written testimonials in opposition to the bill, as well as the University of Alaska's official position.

Inviting the right people to write letters and selecting the right people to testify is standard practice, but this has been an exceptionally well-executed exercise in generating the desired public comments. During the first hearing, Coghill allowed an intern in his office to speak for 20 minutes in favor of the bill and then allowed UA President Pat Gamble to speak for 15 minutes against it.

At the second hearing, two days later, he invited an NRA official from California, an expert in testifying against gun control. The NRA spokesman was followed by several people who had written letters supporting the bill and were also invited to speak.

“We are going to have the NRA give its testimony today, that was my primary focus today,” Coghill said at the start of the second hearing. “The university got to testify. I know we cut them short because we ran our clock down pretty tight.”

Apparently there was no need to invite any organization other than the NRA to testify.

Speaking on the phone, Brian Judy, the NRA representative, opened with this question: “Should a person have less freedom and safety when he or she walks onto a college campus?”

Put it that way and the less-freedom-and-safety crowd runs for cover.

“Gun-free school zones have proven to be a public policy failure, if not a public policy disaster,” the NRA spokesman said.

“Virtually every mass killing in recent years, perpetrated by a crazed gunman, has occurred in a so-called gun-free zone.”

At one point, Sen. Fred Dyson of Eagle River turned philosophical, but not emotional: “Several times, all of us concerned about children have heard discussions, somewhat emotional, about accidental shootings . . . but I’ve seen some figures that show that more children have died in five-gallon buckets and wading pools than by firearms and all kinds of startling things like that.”

“Generally, that is absolutely true,” the NRA spokesman said.

Coghill said he would probably have more public testimony on Monday afternoon from people armed with facts about firearms. He didn't say if legislation would be forthcoming to deal with five-gallon buckets.

What I think is that people are emotional in many ways when they fight over what seem to be intractable problems stemming from guns, violent behavior and individual rights. The arguments would make a good college classroom exercise, with or without armed students.

For our elected officials, who are more than halfway through the session, it would make more sense to face the real challenges of public policy and deal with imminent problems facing our education system, instead of worrying about solutions for non-existent problems.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.