Leaders of the Alaska Senate know what we need to improve higher education: Get more concealed guns in the dorms and classrooms of the University of Alaska.
According to Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly, the UA Board of Regents is infringing on the right of people to carry concealed firearms to chemistry labs, concerts, the library, basketball games and parties in the dorms.
The state House, to its credit, has put aside all bills that don't deal directly with money matters, but not the Senate.
This sideshow comes at a time when the Legislature is preparing to cut millions from the university budget, reducing academic programs and cutting jobs. Legislators refuse to say how big the cutbacks will be, but look for decreases that will degrade future opportunities for thousands.
This is a critical time for the institution with the greatest potential to help Alaskans build a stronger and more successful state. I'm not talking about the Legislature.
If you are a politician, misdirection is as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance. Get people to waste their energy fighting over imaginary problems and they will be distracted from real budget questions about services and taxes.
That's what this is about. Grandstanding about guns won't do anything to help higher education in Alaska, but it will change the subject.
The right to keep and bear arms "may not be abridged by the Board of Regents of the University of Alaska," Kelly says in Senate Bill 174. The National Conference of State Legislatures says Utah is the only state with a law that says universities do not have the ability to ban concealed weapons.
The Alaska Senate has made the bill a priority, as Kelly introduced it Monday and it already has two hearings set in the education committee, Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30 p.m. A lot of people will express passionate beliefs both pro and con.
What the bill is missing is any recognition of high-risk situations that justify rules about concealed weapons in UA facilities. Under the bill, a student, employee or visitor who exhibits "warning signs including depression, suicidal gestures or overt hostility or aggression (everyday occurrences on residential college campuses) could not be deprived of his/her concealed weapons," the university said in its response to the bill.
And anyone who has ever been near a college dorm would agree with the university that this would make guns "accessible to ineligible roommates and transient guests, where alcohol is readily available for consumption."
Kelly, the former university lobbyist, has graciously included an immunity provision in the bill to hold the university harmless from civil liability in case someone gets shot on university property. It won't be the university's fault, his bill says.
The last time that the Republicans in the Senate brought this up, a measure introduced by Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill two years ago, I said it was hypocritical to take this approach because legislators are willing to deny Alaskans the right to keep and bear arms in the committee rooms where senators think great thoughts.
In 2014, Coghill said that "Law-abiding citizens do not lose the fundamental right to protect themselves and others simply because they enter the grounds of UA campuses."
But law-abiding citizens do lose their "fundamental right" to protect themselves and others in the halls of the Legislature.
Kelly and co-sponsors Sens. Cathy Giessel, Mike Dunleavy, Bill Stoltze and, Lesil McGuire believe that there should be limits on concealed weapons in the place where they work.
The signs that greet visitors to the Capitol say people can be searched and that loitering, pets and firearms are prohibited. "NO WEAPONS OR FIREARMS EXCEPT LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS."
This is a reasonable limit on gun rights that should stay in place, comparable to the UA policy.
Nothing has changed with the university gun situation since the Legislature failed to hold a vote in 2014 on the Coghill bill.
But something has. Two years ago on Valentine's Day, when Coghill introduced his bill, oil was $106 a barrel and the state wasn't facing a financial upheaval that threatens the Alaska economy and the future of higher education in Alaska.
Dermot Cole, a graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been covering Alaska politics for 40 years. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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