Monday, April 11, 2016

When Guns Left Campus

by Carla Helfferich

The recent brouhaha about weaponry on the University of Alaska campuses has been giving me spasms in my old-timer muscles. I’ve been associated with the university (now reduced to the lonely University of Alaska Fairbanks, but once the university) for longer than have most of the buildings now standing on Campus Hill.

Looking back on my days there as a student in 1959, I can be glad that guns then were so well controlled on campus. Too many of my fellow students still had that sense of adolescent immortality (“It can’t happen to ME!”) even when they were dripping blood from the skinning knife’s slip; still others fell into intense, romantic depressions, but St. Joseph’s Hospital (now Fairbanks Memorial) was pretty good at coping with too many pills on top of too much alcohol. Easy access to guns would have made for too many deaths by accident and by suicide, instead of so many cases of Close, But No Cigar, followed by some months of embarrassment for that student.

And in retrospect, I appreciate that I never had to worry about being blown away by a furious or despondent student when I was working as an instructor. I had my share of both—all university-level instructors do, eventually—young people in the grip of hormonal hurricanes or other upheavals. The typical college freshman hasn’t yet had time to learn that most hurricanes and upheavals pass, if you give them time and patience.

Yet, oddly perhaps, the impetus for the then-tight control of guns on campus came because of some adults in residence. That at least was the story I was told when I first came to campus. This is a place of hunters, I commented to a professor. I see by the student handbook that guns must be stored in special lockers, to be removed only with suitable permissions. Surprises me. Ah, he said, they instituted that policy just a couple of years ago. This is the history he gave me:

The university drew in a goodly number of Korean War veterans, attracted like so many of us by the Alaska mystique but with the chance at an education funded by the GI Bill. These men had been through battles and stresses well beyond adolescent pangs. The university also noted they were old enough to drink legally, and wisely decided the veterans deserved a habitation of their own. Thus Vets’ Dorm, a great shabby barracks-like building, held only men who had lived with their weapons by their sides. That they should continue to have handguns or long guns in their rooms was unquestioned…until one day, in an end room on the top floor, the resident dropped his supposedly unloaded rifle. He was just going to tuck it away under his bed, but it slipped out of his hand. The butt struck the floor hard, and the rifle discharged. The lightly built dorm walls offered nearly no resistance to the bullet. Five rooms down the hall, the occupant bent down to pick up his bottle of beer. When he straightened up, he found that the greasy spot on the wall that marked where he always leaned his head when sitting on his bed had a hole dead center.

When the Dean of Students proposed that guns henceforth should reside only in special lockers, no one in Vets’ Dorm objected.

Well, that was then, this is now, and our legislators seem unconcerned about adolescent angst or accidents. Once the Supreme Court decided that the portion of the Second Amendment referencing “a well-regulated militia” had no relevance, the right to bear arms became some kind of absolute, and a spirit of vigilantism pervaded the land. No matter how stressed, every college freshman has the right to carry a concealed weapon to the next kegger, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. No, I’m not comfortable on campus any more, and yes, that doesn’t matter to the legislators.

One question: are concealed weapons legal on the floor of the legislature?

Carla Helfferich has been in Alaska since 1959, mostly associated with the university, including first editing, then writing the Alaska Science Forum columns. She served as the first managing editor for the University of Alaska Press. She is the author of Cut Bait, a light mystery, and the editor in chief of McRoy & Blackburn, Publishers.

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