The University of Idaho sits on a picturesque, tree-lined campus in the rolling hills of the northwestern Palouse. Just one mile from the Washington State border, the state's oldest university has the tranquil feel of a bricks-and-ivy, New England college. But one student here is fighting for his right to keep a bit of the Wild West alive on campus. And his case is just one skirmish in a raging national debate over guns, gun control and the legal and moral codes that guide the role of firearms in public places.
Aaron Tribble is the 36-year-old, second-year law student making national headlines for his suit against the university's gun policy, a rule he feels stands in violation of his Second Amendment rights. Tribble plans to put his education to good use and represent himself at the July 20 hearing; University of Idaho President Duane Nellis and the State Board of Education were named defendants and issued summonses on Jan. 21.
Guns of any kind are strictly prohibited from student housing on the Moscow campus. At particular issue in Tribble's case is precisely where students or faculty living on-campus can store their legally owned firearms. According to the Argonaut student newspaper, the university's administrative manual makes clear where guns must be kept: "firearm storage is available at the Police Campus Substation."
Tribble, a father of two, has complained that fetching his guns from the campus police can be a time-consuming affair. In a website set up to publicize the case, Tribble claims that he cannot "lawfully possess a firearm in defense of his family without the threat of expulsion or other academic sanctions." As for moving to different housing not bound by the school's policies, he points to the "pricing and location" of student housing as deciding factors in his living situation.
Since filing his case, Tribble has garnered support from some fellow students, including an Idaho chapter of the national group Students for Concealed Carry, a gun-rights organization launched in 2007 that claims roughly 43,000 members and supporters nationwide. Al Baker, the group's state director and a fellow law student at the university, said in a statement that "Tribble's suit reflects the fact that the fundamental right of self-protection does not end at an arbitrary boundary."
When it comes to guns, the struggle to define and enforce the seemingly arbitrary boundaries between private and public spheres is not new and is being hotly debated in several other states as well. Last week in Oklahoma, state senator and Iraq war veteran Steve Russell proposed a bill that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses. According to the Tulsa World, the state's chancellor of higher education said that every public college and university in his state is opposed to the idea.
According to a comprehensive report in Inside Higher Ed, Russell's bill in Oklahoma would join similar efforts in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Nebraska and New Mexico. Meanwhile in Colorado, a decision is pending from the state supreme court on whether colleges can legally ban guns on campus. And in Texas, some student groups are working to make concealed carry rights their "top priority for the 2011 Texas Legislative Session." But the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, which counts more than 260 universities and colleges as supporters, is fighting the legislative trend with a petition that it hopes will sway lawmakers.
There is only one state where the issue has been settled. Following a 2006 ruling by the state supreme court, Utah ruled that colleges were barred from enforcing their own rules, at least when it comes to guns. Utah's Chief Justice Christine Durham's dissent, quoted in Inside Higher Ed, said the new logic on guns had set a dangerous precedent and meant that "the university may not subject a student to academic discipline for flashing his pistol to a professor in class."
Gun-friendly legislative solutions gained momentum nationwide in the wake of the mass-shooting incident in 2007 at Virginia Tech where 27 students and five teachers were killed by a lone gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. After another disturbed young loner shot 19 people and killed six in Tucson earlier this month, the tone of the debate rose yet again -- gun rights activists argue that permitting more people to carry concealed weapons protects the innocent, while gun control groups work to make ever more powerful guns and ammunition clips harder to obtain.
Baker, the Students for Concealed Carry legal liaison in Idaho, pointed out that Tribble's case has a narrower objective than most similar efforts in other states. Tribble is "only suing about his residence and his type of residence, family housing, where graduate students and their families typically live," Baker said. "He isn't talking about taking guns into dorms or classrooms or labs or anywhere else on campus." However, Baker added that Students for Concealed Carry typically advocates for a "much more broad type of change" and is actively working to introduce a written bill to the Idaho Statehouse.
Currently in Idaho, it is not illegal under state law for a person with proper training and licenses to have a concealed gun on a college campus. (It is illegal in any K through 12 school.) But according to Tribble and Baker, the problem is when institutions, whether public or private, attempt to enforce rules that run counter to the law. Baker wants to see a solution from Boise.
"That's the ultimate fix in this thing," he said. "The legislature can step in and give us a clear definition, and it would make these type of suits go away."
Here's the University of Idaho Campus Police Gun Storage Policy:
Policy Note: University Firearms Storage Service
Sunday, October 10 2010
University of Idaho policy restricts firearms, ammunition or archery devices on campus, whether in a vehicle or building. The University policy regarding firearms is in the Administrative Procedures Manual, Chapter 35, section 35, H and the Student Code of Conduct, Article VI.
The Campus Division of the Moscow Police Department has agreed to provide storage of firearms belonging to University of Idaho students. It is the desire of the University of Idaho and the Moscow Police Department to make the student's property as accessible as possible. With this in mind, the following procedures will be used:
- All weapons initially checked in must be brought to the Campus Substation during normal business hours, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Students are encouraged to call (208) 883-7127 to make sure someone will be available to assist them.
- Students may check their weapons in/out anytime during normal business hours.
- After normal business hours, students will need to call the Moscow Police Department at (208) 882-COPS and the first available officer will meet the student at the Campus Substation to check the firearms in/out.
- All students checking firearms in/out must have picture identification, and the Firearms Storage Card that they received when they initially checked in their firearms. If the student has lost the Firearms Storage Card, they will be given their firearm only if their photo identification signature matches the original signature on the liability form currently on file with the University. If it is determined that the person is the legal owner of the firearm, the firearm will be released to them. They must contact an officer at the Campus Division to have a new card issued.
- Firearms without a trigger lock attached will not be accepted.
- Loaded firearms will not be accepted.
- Ammunition cannot be stored at the Campus Substation. Ammunition cannot be stored in the University Residence halls at this time.
- Firearms not encased will not be accepted.