PULLMAN, Wash.-- In January, two students parked in a police lot at Washington State University and removed their 12-gauge shotguns from the trunk.
The students were not outlaws. They were following state law, which requires students to store their pistols, rifles and shotguns at the campus police station.
“I can be out there for 15 to 25 minutes waiting,” said Logan Eres, a freshman economics major at WSU, “so it is kind of an inconvenience keeping my guns at the gun station.”
Washington law bans firearms, explosives, and dangerous chemicals on university property. In the Inland Northwest, where many students grew up with guns, the debate can be particularly heated. On Tuesday, the university’s Thomas S. Foley Institute will host a debate on gun control. (http://foley.wsu.edu/)
The issues of guns on campus has again risen to national prominence as state and federal officials look for ways to balance Constitutional rights with concerns about shootings at public schools and colleges.
“The best thing that we can do is have the policies in place to try and mitigate (shootings),” WSU Assistant Chief Steve Hansen said, “to make sure we do the best we can to limit the weapons that are here, and have all of our officers train on active shooter response ...”
At WSU and other area universities, those rules rely on students to turn over their weapons when they arrive on university property. Right now, WSU’s gun safe—a tall narrow room with wood shelves and a cluttered workbench—has at least 20 shotguns, pistols and rifles tucked in their black, canvas and camouflage cases, police said.
But the laws and policies aren't foolproof, authorities say. WSU Police made three weapons arrests and referred five students to student conduct in 2011, according to the most recent Annual Security and Fire Report. Weapons arrests and referrals include brass knuckles, knives, bows and more, but the police find at least one gun illegally on campus each year, Hansen said.
At the University of Idaho, a student reportedly took his life with a gun last month, even after campus police confiscated another gun he kept in his dorm. In 2011, assistant psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante shot and killed graduate student Katy Benoit near the same campus before taking his own life.
“I think the strength is how closely people adhere to the policy,” Hansen said, “and realize that policies are not necessarily set for the strongest person around. Sometimes your policy is directed at the weakest link that you have.”
Eres and her friend, freshman Stephanie George, know the tricks of checking guns. They carry their weapons in their cases to avoid alarming other students. And because ammunition can’t be stored in residence halls or the gun safe, they keep it in the trunk of their car, which is legal.
Behind the police station, they access the safe by buzzing for an officer through a consul. Officers are not always available, especially if they’re out on patrol or an emergency.
WSU student gun club provides courses for hunting licenses, concealed pistol licenses and general weapon safety. Jeremy Lessmann, a WSU chemistry professor and advisor to the gun club, teaches many of the courses for the club, which has 60 active members.
The courses are “the basic foundation that anybody needs to be a successful and safe hunter,” Lessmann said.
The club does not engage in politics, but instead focuses on defending guns by teaching responsible ownership, Devlin said. But some club members wish they could take a stronger stance.
“There are a few of us that have really gotten frustrated by the whole gun debate,” George said. “And so we kind of feel like we should exercise our right of free speech and try and do something about it.”
Many gun club members try to shoot every weekend.
On a chilly Sunday in January, George loaded her 12-gauge with neon pink shells. She steadied the shotgun against her canvas-vested shoulder, aimed toward a rolling Palouse hill, and sternly called out, “Pull!”
She and other club members traveled 14 miles south of Pullman to the Colton Gun Club, the nearest place students can shoot.
These students’ passion for guns comes from different places.
For George, that place is family. She said she’s been hunting with her father since she was 11 years old. Eres had a similar family experience growing up.
“It’s hard to hear that someone is abusing such an amazing tool for such a violent crime,” Eres said. “Guns can be powerful. It’s how I interact with my family. It’s what makes us close. And to hear that they use it in such a violent way is disheartening.”