Idaho lawmaker wants gun safety classes at college following murder-suicide

Aug 25 2011 - 10:14pm

BOISE, Idaho -- An Idaho lawmaker with ties to Moscow wants the University of Idaho to place greater emphasis on gun safety education in the wake of a shooting that left two people dead this week.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who grew up on a farm near Moscow and still has family in the area, sent a letter to UI President Duane Nellis Tuesday evening. In it he suggests "proper education could have possibly served as a deterrent to the shooter had he understood what the misuse of his gun really meant to (the victim) and her family."

Hagedorn was responding to an email message from the university about the shooting death of 22-year-old graduate student Katy Benoit. Moscow police believe she was shot by a former professor of hers, Ernesto Bustamante, who then killed himself hours later.

"This truly is a tragedy, I understand that," said Hagedorn in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I wrote the letter because I was so upset that two people lost their lives. I'm so sorry for the families -- but not taking action to fix the things that caused this is inexcusable."

Hagedorn said he didn't know any specific details of the case, other than what the university included in its email. Nevertheless, he believes if Benoit received firearms training and Bustamante was aware of it, that alone may have served as a deterrent. And if it didn't, he said, then at least she could have defended herself.

"You can't educate people to the point that no one is crazy, but you can defend yourself against crazy," Hagedorn said. "What if the university had taken a more proactive approach? Would he (Bustamante) have thought twice? We used to teach gun safety in high school, in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but we've gotten away from that. We're afraid if we teach people how to safely carry and store and use firearms, we're going to see more crime. But the data clearly shows the opposite."

There is some disagreement about that, however.

Douglas Orr, an adjunct professor with Washington State University's criminal justice program in Spokane, said when states began expanding concealed carry opportunities in the 1990s, many academics were concerned it would be a return to the Wild West.

"But that didn't happen," he said. "There were no deaths in the streets."

On the other hand, Orr's own doctoral dissertation found no connection between crime rates and the number of concealed weapon permit-holders in a given neighborhood.

"If there's an elevated number of permit-holders in a neighborhood, does that decrease crime? I found it wasn't statistically relevant," Orr said. "What was relevant was the social cohesiveness of the neighborhood. When people ask me if they should get a gun permit, I ask them if they know their neighbors' last names. Get to know them, then decide if you need a gun."

Melanie-Angela Neuilly, an assistant professor with WSU's criminal justice program in Pullman, said the research regarding the influence of guns on crime isn't clear. Her own view, however, is "the presence of guns generally doesn't prevent violence. To the contrary, it facilitates it."

"I don't think anyone can argue against gun safety programs," she said, but such courses are better suited to reducing accidental shootings than reducing violent crime.

"All the gun safety in the world can't prevent an event that clearly wasn't regulated by reason," Neuilly said. "Murder-suicide is generally a crime of passion, and very difficult to prevent."

Hagedorn co-sponsored a bill last session that would have prohibited Idaho colleges and universities from restricting or regulating firearms on campuses, except in undergraduate dormitories. The measure passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Given that background, Neuilly was concerned Hagedorn's comments were meant just to support firearm education, but to promote another guns-on-campus bill.

"This is classic reactionary policy making," she said. "How to do bad policy: Have a knee-jerk reaction to a rare event, and try to form a solution for something that doesn't have a solution."

Hagedorn said his letter wasn't an attempt to "politicize" a tragic situation. Rather, "I was just trying to prod Dr. Nellis to look for an opportunity to educate.

"We don't hesitate to teach our kids about the privilege of driving, but when it comes to the right of gun ownership, we put our heads in the sand. That's very frustrating to me."

(c)2011 Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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