American Insight: Guns and the Landscape of University Life

A man sits in a chair holding a gun, with a cigarette in his mouth

The following is an article published in our November 2013 issue, “Western Inc.”, and was written by fifth-year Media, Information, and Technoculture student Kelly Hobson. The article is one of the highlights from our November issue. 

The morning of Friday, November 2, 2012, begins like any other for Sarah Stickle.  Sunshine peeks out from behind building rooftops, washing over her as she walks from her apartment to work. A student at The University of Vermont, Stickle is majoring in public communications with a minor in music. She spends her Fridays interning as a production assistant with First Night Burlington, contacting performers for upcoming events.

Just before arriving at work, Stickle’s phone vibrates with a new text message. Checking the message, she realizes it’s from the university’s communications department. It reads: “A woman with a toy gun entered Angell Hall around 8:30 a.m. She has been apprehended by UVM Police. There is no threat to the community. Details to follow.” Moments later, her phone rings. Checking the number, Stickle ignores the call to avoid hearing the same message in a pre-recorded drone. Walking into work, she approaches the desk of her supervisor. “Hey, you aren’t going to believe this…”

Several blocks away, the story of the woman with the toy gun is spreading like wildfire across the UVM campus. Students who were in the classroom are telling and retelling their version of the bizarre incident.

The UVM toy gun incident took place three months after the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, and just six weeks prior to the Sandy Hook massacre.

The world of guns and school shootings may seem distant for Canadian university students—hard to imagine except when brought to life by Bowling for Columbine or other products of American popular culture. The UVM toy gun episode illustrates one of the major differences in the experience of an American university student versus their Canadian counterparts. What would have likely been no more than a good story in Canada instigated a campus-wide emergency procedure in Vermont.

UVM is just south of the Canadian border, two hours outside of Montreal. The campus can be likened to McGill. Its students could easily be attendees of Western or another Canadian university. Our southern neighbours at UVM (and other United States colleges and universities), however, face a terrifyingly different reality.

Stickle is now in her third year at UVM. While the incident of the toy gun didn’t affect her directly, guns and the conversation around gun control are part of her daily life.

She vividly remembers her first encounter with a firearm. While visiting family in rural Cassidy, Michigan for Christmas, her cousins (in their early teens at the time) handed her a rifle. “My grandfather has a whole case of World War II rifles,” says Stickle. “My cousins decided it would be a great idea to hand a gun to an eight-year-old.”

Teetering under the weight of the weapon, Stickle was instructed by her preteen relatives to fire the rifle straight up in the air. So she did. “It was this weird thing where I shot it into clear sky and then suddenly there was a bird, just falling,” says Stickle, laughing. “I mean, it landed a ways away from me so [my cousins] all went to check it out and I went inside crying.”

Stickle hasn’t touched a gun since. But her life in Vermont has certainly not been free from the echoes of gunfire. “The big thing with Vermont is you can basically walk into a store and buy a gun, and you don’t need a registration or a license, or a permit. Nothing to carry one openly or concealed,” explains Stickle. “You can just buy a gun and have it. That’s it.”

While such loose laws around the purchase of firearms in Vermont may appear to paint a dangerous picture of American university life, there is one safeguard in place for students. The U.S. has complex federal laws prohibiting firearms on or near school properties. The Gun-Free Schools Act was passed in 1994 by the Clinton administration, and applies nationwide to this day. The GFSA works in conjunction with the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which defines a “school zone” as within 1,000 feet (roughly 305 meters) of any school property. “That’s kind of the one thing the U.S. is universally strict about,” says Stickle. “No guns anywhere near schools.” However, she admits grey areas can exist. “There are some blurred lines with UVM because it’s so spread out,” explains Stickle. “There are neighbourhoods in the middle of it where I’m sure you could have guns.”

Stickle’s roommate, Rocko Gieselman, is also a third year student at UVM, majoring in gender and sexuality studies with a minor in sociology. Like Stickle, Gieselman has grown up around guns. “My road trips generally go down south,” says Gieselman. “I didn’t realize until my last trip but a lot of my family members carry guns just like, to the supermarket.” She explains that for many Americans, guns are a prized possession. “For some of them it’s a feature, you know? Like, here’s my art collection, and here are my guns. But that’s definitely more of a southern thing.”

Both Stickle and Gieselman have an arsenal of stories about how guns have touched their lives. “I actually have a cousin who was involved in a really small school shooting,” says Stickle, as if this is a normal experience. “A shooter came into his classroom and killed half the kids in it. And he wasn’t shot, but I mean, it obviously really messed him up.”

Gun control has been a long-running debate in the United States, revitalized with each major incident involving firearms. Except in peripheral news stories about these mass shootings, most Canadian students can live in blissful ignorance of the real dangers facing their U.S. counterparts. “It’s a very real thing,” says Stickle. “It’s something that really feels like it could happen any day of the week.” Although Stickle never considered  attending a Canadian university, she admits it would have yielded more comfort during her undergraduate degree. “I am a huge proponent of gun control,” says Stickle. “I think Canada has it right.”

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