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Monday, April 14, 11:57 a.m.
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Check your guns at the door

Old west weapons policy aims to keep campus safe

Housed within the darkened command center of the University of Maine Public Safety office, behind the circus of lights emanating from the dispatch control panel, there exists a room that would send Bugs Bunny running for the rabbit hole.

Inside, an array of shotguns and rifles are stacked on racks reaching from the floor to the ceiling, with handguns and ammunition on a nearby metal shelf. They are all located behind a standard, wooden closet door, distinguished only by a small sign that reads “student weapons.”

This is not a collection of confiscated items locked away in the evidence locker. As is the case with many rural college campuses around the country, official UMaine policy allows individuals to store weapons at the police station. While the language of the policy more specifically targets projectile weapons, the storage room has held a bit of everything, including a small collection of Celtic swords and surplus police firearms.

While the state constitution states a citizen’s right to “keep and bear arms shall never be questioned,” approval from the state legislature gives university police the right to regulate weapons on campus. UMaine police chief Noel March insists the restrictions are not about taking away the rights of citizens, but are aimed at ensuring a safe collegiate environment.

“Our overarching goal is to keep our students, teachers, spectators, visitors, credit union patrons and parents safe,” March said. “It’s not about controlling guns. It’s about safety.”

The layout of the UMaine campus alone supports March’s reasoning. The cluttered landscape of buildings, people, roads and traffic would make it difficult to fire any weapon safely.

Justin Robichaud and Brian Porter, co-presidents of the Trap and Skeet Club, both agree that the system is convenient and have rarely encountered problems with the staff at Public Safety.

The members of the Trap and Skeet Club are just as serious about their gun collections and sport shooting as they are about safety. Their team has trunkloads of hearing and vision protection purchased with university club funds. One member even warns that using a safety switch to prevent accidents is not enough.

Robichaud, who bought one of his two shotguns instead of a car, said shooting is “kind of like golf, except with a shotgun.” After scoring a near-perfect score in a game of skeet with high winds and freezing temperatures, Porter merely shrugged, as if to suggest this was a commonplace accomplishment.

The zeal with which these students collect and care for their guns reveals an added benefit of the program – the likelihood of anyone trying to break into a police department is low.

March mentioned an incident in 2005 when a student had a pistol stolen from his Jeep Wrangler after the cloth top was slashed. With the rise in campus thefts last year, incidents like this are a constant reminder of the stress one innocent mistake or lazy moment can create.

Recreational shooting is only half of the picture when it comes to guns. In a state where handguns do not require a permit for purchase and can be bought after a background check, which takes only a few minutes to complete. Personal protection is a reason for carrying a gun that Mainers take to heart.

The Gaming and Weapons Unit of the Maine State Police processes an average of 3,000 concealed carry permits a year, a number that represents roughly half of the municipalities in Maine as well as non-resident permits. In addition, the department made reciprocity agreements in 2009 with Delaware, South Dakota and Louisiana, essentially extending the privileges associated with a resident concealed carry permit to a total of four states.

A quick look at the collection on sale at the Old Town Trading Post, well known for its collection of various guns and ammunition, reveals narrow aisles between gun racks jammed full with rifles and shotguns, reflecting the tastes of the concealed-carry population. Just a few hundred dollars will land you a two-inch snub-nosed revolver aptly named “The Judge,” which is capable of firing .45 caliber bullets and .410 gauge shotgun shells.

Talk about bang for the buck.

As campus shootings have captivated the national spotlight in recent years — as recently as last week at the University of Alabama-Huntsville — individual safety has become a concern for college students nationwide, going so far as to spur the beginning of a nationwide group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.

The weapons policy at UMaine does make provisions for students to carry non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray to defend themselves from an attacker. While the university police force recognizes personal safety concerns, March maintains that more guns on campus are not the answer to worries about violence.

“Less guns in the formula is safer than an unknown number of guns in our community,” March said.

Numerous complaints about safety on the UMaine campus have spawned a review of nighttime lighting and a personal escort program, in hopes of allaying fears of being attacked while walking between buildings or to remote parking areas. In addition, the Student Behavior Review Team and the Workplace Threat Assessment Team investigate reports on a weekly basis about behavior that causes concern among the campus community for students and faculty, respectively.

When it comes to violence in the classroom, March is especially adamant that a law-abiding citizen with a concealed weapon would do far more harm than good. An expert with a pistol, March doubts even he would be able to see through the “fog of war” clearly enough to “neutralize a threat” in a crowded classroom. He also posed the hypothetical situation where the law-abiding citizen draws a weapon on an assailant in a classroom and is mistaken for the shooter by law enforcement officers, which could have devastating results.

When asked for a view on the policy, one commuter student responded that he did not know such a policy exists and that his rifle was routinely in his truck while on campus.

In this case, those found in violation of the policy will first be asked to comply with the standards, and refusal would result in law enforcement removing the individual from campus.

To illustrate how seriously law enforcement views the policy, March related a story involving a call about a rifle in the back window of a truck belonging to a contractor working at Lord Hall during summer 2007. Not only was the man forced to leave campus after he refused to properly store his gun at the station, but he was fired by his foreman for jeopardizing the company’s contract with the university.

In the end, the policy is just one aspect of the community policing philosophy that encourages cooperation between the campus population and law enforcement to make the university an enjoyable, fear-free environment.

“You should be able to live, work and learn here without being afraid,” March said. “On that point I am unwilling to negotiate.”