This week, Idaho governor Butch Otter signed into law a bill permitting the concealed carry of firearms on Idaho college campuses. Superficially, the legislation is meant as a defense of Second Amendment freedoms and a preemptive strike against the slippery slope of “Big Government”interference1. That the Second Amendment isn’t really under serious threat doesn’t seem to have entered into the reasoning of Idaho’s conservative governing elites. In reality, this legislation is a product of a state-government populated by conservative fanatics, apparently allergic to reason and evidence. Instead, they seem gripped by worries over “Big Government” that relate more to an amorphous liberal bogeyman (visible only to readers of the Drudge Report, listeners of conservative talk radio, and viewers of Fox News) than real and consistent concerns about protecting civil liberties and mitigating government inefficiency. To argue otherwise, one would have to ignore the hypocrisy inherent in these same lawmakers’ stance on gender equality2 (civil rights), desire to invest $2 million in killing wolves3 (government waste) and recent decision to give themselves a pay bump (especially puzzling, in a supposedly merit based market economy).
Ideological motivations aside, I can’t see what possible purpose this legislation will serve. If the intent is to stop mass shootings, the law is essentially trying to stop an exceedingly rare type of tragedy4,5 by making the means of executing it commonplace. That’s not to say the law is going to cause a mass shooting, but that it seems aimed at preventing an event that the smart money would favor not happening in the first place. Another mass shooting is a virtual inevitability, but the odds of it happening at one of Idaho’s colleges are small. Additionally, there is an argument to be made that allowing guns on campus actually increases the likelihood of violent altercation turning deadly. This point has been debated6,7, but the evidence is only marginally equivocal – among 27 developed countries, the U.S. has the highest rates of gun ownership and the highest rates of firearm related deaths8.9,10,11. To be clear, guns are not the cause of violence – evidence from Russia, where gun-ownership is strictly limited but rates of violence are higher than in the U.S., is strongly suggestive in this regard12. But the argument that guns play no role in the frequency of fatal violence is weak. More importantly, the notion that guns actually mitigate violence in some way is entirely fallacious. The oft touted catch-phrase that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is nothing more than a blustery assertion, evinced by the characters played by John Wayne and Gary Cooper in mid-twentieth century Westerns, rather than empirical results. Studies have suggested that areas with more liberal gun laws do in fact experience lower rates of violent crime, but they fail to establish gun-ownership as the causal variable12 and ignore the fact that rates of gun-related homicide – the most pertinent variable – are higher where guns are more common.
In any event, this is not meant as an anti-gun polemic. I support gun control, but I also enjoy recreational shooting. What really irks me in this situation is the use of legislation as an act of ideological symbolism. The Idaho gun bill serves no practical purpose and was directly opposed by many of those it will most directly impact, including law enforcement officials, the State Board of Education, and the faculty and administrations of the State’s largest schools1,13. It is purely an act of political theater, meant to fan the flames of conservative fervor by offering a symbolic victory against the specter of liberal persecution. If anything, it makes campuses marginally more dangerous. The presence of concealed firearms allows a culture of fear and paranoia, of hard-line ideological fanaticism, to insinuate itself on campuses meant to act as arenas for free discourse. It is an act directly contrary to the spirit and purpose of higher education. But given the source of the legislation, this shouldn’t be surprising. The modern Republican Party faces no greater threat than a well-informed, ideologically malleable citizenry.