BEFORE ALL THIS: Guns on Campus
It was a more innocent time.
The grounds were not unlike a small college: a circle drive in front of the administration building; two rows of two-story, red brick residence halls; spacious lawns and great leafy trees rising above it all. But in this instance the halls were wards, and the grounds those of the Idaho State School and Hospital—the state’s institution for the mentally retarded. Residing there were six hundred and twenty-seven developmentally disabled children and adults, all of them requiring twenty-four-hour assistance and supervision. Another couple hundred people worked on staff.
A member of administration (in a vaporous position somewhere in the loose space between administrative assistant and assistant superintendent), I had drawn manager duty on that Saturday. It was breezy, jacket-and-scarf cold, and the trees were bare of leaves. It was a weekend day and an inside day.
I was walking from the hospital building to administration (almost certainly with my best hand-carved pipe only just lit) when I saw him. A man I did not know was standing nearly at the center of the campus, two full wards on one side, three on the other. He was cradling a rifle in his right arm.
Approach or not?
I could have called the police, but I approached. Yes, for it was before all of today, and I was young. Approached, though, with trepidation.
He was looking up rather than around. Up into the great leafless trees.
Approached, and politely asked what he was doing, and why.
He said he’d come to shoot the pigeons, had been hired by the pest control contractor to get rid of the birds. An exterminator yes, but one of pests not of persons.
I puzzle over remembering rifle rather than shotgun. But he was after perched birds, not interested in the sport of downing them when they were flushed and flying.
Quietly, politely, I asked him to leave. Told him there were too many people around to use a gun.
He nodded, he left.
It wouldn’t happen that way today.
It was another Saturday, another manager-on-duty day, and I was out on the grounds. A hospital aide a year or two younger than me, a recent hire I did not know, approached and said he’d like to show me something. Though I recall being less than curious and the conversation less than focused, I followed him to his car. He opened its trunk. Lying on the floor were guns: handguns and long guns, many of them.
I don’t recall what was said, but now he had my attention. I knew of no incidents of deliberate harm to residents of this institution nor any other, but this young man did not dress as a hunter nor speak like one. He told no tales of favorite hunting grounds nor of mounted trophies. He did not mention skill with targets or with skeet or with clay pigeons. I couldn’t tell you now the makes and models or calibers and gauges of the guns I saw. I do recall a slightly strange fellow, gregarious to the point of oddity, loquacious to the point of off-putting.
And a gaggle of guns on our campus.
This time I called the police.
There was no crime committed, the officer concluded. Nothing to do. Unless, he said, I thought the young man was a danger to himself or someone else. In that case, I could file to have him confined in the state mental hospital for evaluation and treatment. I don’t recall speaking to the superintendent, but it’s hard for me to imagine I didn’t.
On my report, the police picked up the young man and his guns, and he was detained and committed. There was no community mental health program back then to speak of (nor the evidentiary standards and thresholds of today), so he was indeed sent to the mental institution.
It wouldn’t happen that way today.
I never again heard from him or of him. I have no idea how he fared.
There was so little basis upon which to act. And so many completely vulnerable people to protect.
I wonder even now. Was my action justified, or was it a patently unwarranted seizure of this young man’s liberty? If the former, I hope that treatment was prompt and effective. If the latter, I hope his detention was brief and with little personal consequence.
It’s not something I’ll ever know.
Photo by J. S. Anderson: Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle WA