A shot in the foot

| August 30, 2017

Is it contradictory for a university to ban vaping but allow handguns?

By George Gay

From July 1, people 21 and older have been allowed to carry concealed handguns at Wichita State University in Kansas, USA, but are banned from smoking or vaping there. I should point out right from the start, however, that despite the temporal juxtaposition of these two policies, smoking and vaping are not regarded as shooting offenses.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. But then the apparent absurdity of such policies seems to invite ridicule. And this is unfortunate because such ridicule is somewhat misplaced. To a certain extent, this absurdity is occasioned only by the fact that the two separate policies were introduced on the same day. Set apart, they can each be defended, up to a point, but lump them together and—doh!

First, it is necessary to realize that the handgun policy is one that the university—and other institutions in Kansas—had little choice but to introduce. According to a story by Dion Lefler for The Wichita Eagle, two years ago Kansas passed a law that opened nearly all public spaces and buildings to the carrying of concealed handguns, and though public universities and community colleges were given a period of grace in which to comply, that period ended on July 1. There was a way to beat this requirement, but this would have involved positioning metal detectors and guards to run them at every entrance to the university, something that, not unreasonably, officials said was impractically expensive on campuses with dozens of buildings and hundreds of entrances.

You, like me, might not agree with it, but there is logic at work here. That logic says that in a country where it is relatively easy to obtain firearms, unless you can be certain that nobody on the campus is carrying a gun, you must allow everyone to carry one so that they can defend themselves and perhaps others against a person who is carrying a weapon with evil intent.

Of course, you could argue that it would be better if guns weren’t so easily available, but we are where we are. And anyway, chasing that argument you run up against the Second Amendment. U.S. citizens argue on a regular basis over the Second Amendment and gun control, and, as a Brit, I don’t feel qualified or brave enough to intrude on their dispute. So perhaps I could take the coward’s way out and quote a U.S. citizen, the comedian and commentator Rich Hall, who, in a column in The Guardian in February about President Donald Trump’s declaration that he was banning immigrants from seven countries, seemed to sum up well the logic of the Second Amendment in the 21st century. “It is in times like these,” Hall wrote, “that we Americans need to pull our loved ones close, give them a hug and remind them that—Trump aside—the U.S. is still a place where people of all faiths, colors and personal beliefs are welcome to acquire a handgun and fire willy-nilly at other persons of faith, color and personal belief.”

Quite. But that is not to say that questions cannot be raised. I mean, why, rather than letting everyone carry a handgun, couldn’t such guns be limited to people trained in handling guns and difficult situations who would be appointed to each section of the university, rather like a fire marshal or a first aider might be appointed to each section of a place of employment? It’s a thought, but perhaps there’s a good reason not to have people trained in the use of guns. Certainly, two years ago, Kansas removed the requirement that anyone who carried a concealed handgun had to obtain a permit, acquired by paying a license fee and completing an eight-hour training course. Was the thinking, I wonder, that if somebody was going to go on a rampage, it was better that they were incompetent when it came to handling guns, or perhaps such a requirement offended against the ethos of the free market?

In fact, in one way this is definitely not a free-market issue because, whereas people are allowed to carry concealed handguns, that is all they may carry. Under the principles of the free market, I assume, better-off students and lecturers would be able to equip themselves with bigger armaments, with the most well-off walking around—rather gingerly, I would imagine—with rocket launchers pushed down behind the waistband of their pants. But no, this is a level killing field.

But again, I’m being unfair. It is important to be clear that one of the policies introduced on July 1 is about carrying something, whereas the other is about using two products, or rather not using them. People aren’t being given carte blanche to re-enact in the classroom the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or, for younger readers, scenes from Reservoir Dogs; they are being allowed, according to the supporters of “concealed carry,” to carry with them the means to defend themselves if they are attacked by somebody with a weapon.

Let’s leave the smoking gun, however, and turn to the question of smoking tobacco. Again, the ban on tobacco smoking is logical up to a point because, while cigarettes carry warnings about the health risks these products pose, as far as I know, handguns do not carry such warnings. Additionally, as far as I can tell, nearly everybody—with the exceptions at least of the U.S. vice president, Mike Pence, and me—is happy to endorse the much-used phrase “smoking kills.” And while fewer people, I think, are happy to go along with the idea that secondhand smoking kills, there are enough supporters of these two ideas to make those at the university think that smoking should be banned.

In fact, the temporal juxtaposition of the university’s two policies provides an opportunity to examine the idea of being killed. Imagine being on campus with somebody who is shooting a handgun at you. What do you think are your chances of being killed? Of course, it will depend on a few factors, including the distance between you and the person firing the gun, the competence of the person doing the shooting, the type of gun and the type of ammunition being used, what you are wearing, etc. And, for those who believe in the logic of concealed carry, it will depend on how quickly you can get your weapon out of your purse, the type of gun you have, etc. But let’s say that your chances of being killed would be at least 50 percent.

Now the scene changes, and the person walking toward you is smoking a cigarette. What are your chances of being killed? I think it would be not much more than zero percent, no matter the distance between you and the smoker, the type of cigarette being smoked, the wind speed and the wind direction, etc.

Surely, another way for those who believe that smoking kills to deal with the smoking issue would be to go down the route of gun logic—to allow everyone to smoke cigarettes on campus so that if you felt that you were being subjected to a deadly assault by tobacco smoke, you could retaliate in kind.

Finally, we come to the ban on vaping. No, you shouldn’t laugh, because there is logic at work here, even if it takes logic to its breaking point. If you accept the idea that smoking tobacco kills, and if you accept that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which, we are told, bases its decisions on scientific assessments, was right in deeming e-cigarettes to be tobacco products, then you have an argument for banning vaping on campus, even if that argument is tenuous in the extreme given that you don’t “smoke” the “tobacco product” that is in reality an e-cigarette. Remember, to some people, egged on by others who should know better, that vapor cloud is just as dangerous as is tobacco smoke. OK, you can laugh now.

At this point, let’s look at another scene, and, at the end of it, take a multiple-choice test. It’s after dark, there aren’t too many people about, and you need to get to your next lecture. To do so, you must walk down one of two dimly lit, covered alleyways. Coming toward you down alleyway A is a mean-looking man you don’t know who is vaping for all he’s worth and creating a huge cloud of vapor but who you know is not carrying a concealed handgun. Coming down alleyway B, meanwhile, is a mean-looking man you don’t know who is not vaping but who you know is carrying a concealed handgun. Do you take alleyway A or B? Tricky, eh?

For the university to ban smoking completely, without leaving any sanctuaries where smokers can indulge their habit, seems unfair given the likely size of the smoking population. And it could be regarded as discriminatory. But to ban vaping goes even further and seems to amount to absurdity. It is absurd because, as far as is known, vaping is about 95 percent less risky than is smoking, a habit that itself takes perhaps 40 years before it causes major health problems, and even then not in all of those who indulge in it. But it is monumentally absurd when you consider that vaping is used by many smokers to quit their habit.

If the university authorities had banned smoking on campus but allowed vaping, this again would have been unfair, but at least many smokers who might not otherwise have tried vaping would no doubt have been tempted to vape while on campus. And if they had tried vaping and liked it, who knows—they might have switched completely, which would have reduced hugely the health risk they were taking. I think the university authorities missed an opportunity here. They might even have shot themselves in the foot. Sorry, that was a cheap shot.

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