Sound of Gunfire Off in the Distance: A Short History of Firearms at Reed

“First we saw sand, all over the floor. Then the shell casings. Then the cigarette butts. Then, we looked up, and saw these giant lead deflectors looming over us. Why they didn’t take it all out, I don’t know. Maybe they thought it would make a comeback.” Frank Zornado, Sports Center Supervisor and Aquatics Manager, has seen strange things in his twenty-nine years working at Reed, but one of the most memorable was his discovery of the college’s forgotten shooting range.

The Sports Center was being extensively remodeled during the 1999–2000 academic year. Frank had been measuring for new flooring in the classroom and mat room area, which at the time was the weight room, and in what is now the upper weight room, then a storage area. After writing down the figures, though, he noticed a discrepancy. The storage room floor was ten feet shorter, north to south, than the weight room floor. There was something hidden in the wall.

Frank got a colleague to help him move the cabinets that covered the north wall of the storage room. Behind them was a particle board partition, and “there was a little Cousin It door in the wall — about three feet high.” When they ducked through, they were faced with the remnants of a failed Sports Center program, abandoned since the late 1960s.

Before 1968, Reed had a venerable, although quiet, tradition of rifle-shooting programs. The old Men’s Gymnasium, located until 1965 where Kaul currently stands, contained a range, and Student Handbooks from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s mention a PE class and a Reed Rifle Squad. The 1965 handbook includes regulatory language similar to our current Firearms Policy, with an added exception for storage, use and cleaning in the range and in the weapons lockers. Those lockers resided in the Old Dorm Block basement, in what is now Renn Fayre Storage, and made headlines in 1963 when a student found an abandoned bottle of highly explosive lead azide left unattended in a locker. The resulting inquest by the Portland Police Bureau bomb squad made it onto local television and the front page of the Oregonian under the headline “The Reed College Bomb.”

The current Sports Center didn’t originally contain a shooting range. The range was added in 1968, in order to renew the defunct rifle PE class, but was only in use for a year. Students could check out pistols and rifles at a desk and bring them into the range for practice. This was long before the doors of the Sports Center had any kind of alarm system, though, and those who checked out guns could and did carry them out onto campus. According to Frank, students began using the guns to hunt rodents. (Perhaps Freud’s Rat-Man was alive and well back in the Olde days.) It wasn’t long before the range was, as it were, under fire.

As anyone who remembers the ill-fated goose-shooting organization, started by Wren Kominos-Marvell ’13, from a few years ago can attest, the Reed community doesn’t take kindly to anyone killing animals on campus. The 1968 shooting class was canceled and the range shuttered after only two years. To this day, Frank remains uncertain as to why the Sports Center decided to board up the range rather than simply getting rid of it: “I don’t know, maybe they were being cheap!”

Yet the history of officially sanctioned guns on campus was not quite over. Until Senate passed the Firearms Policy in 2014, there were no regulations keeping firearms off Reed property, apart from the segment of the Residence Life housing contract banning them from the dorms. As late as 2010, the Reed Shooting Sports Kollectiv (RSSK) was permitted to set up an airsoft shooting gallery in the racquetball courts. Michael Lombardo told The Grail that “the club was very well organized, researched, et cetera, and Ty [Marbut ’11, the RSSK signator at the time] was extraordinary in his ability to communicate the value of knowledge and responsibility with regards to firearms safety,” but that by then the college administration had become uncomfortable with the idea of firearms of any kind.

Reed did not strictly need a policy in order to keep guns out — as Community Safety Director Gary Granger explains, “as an employer and as a property owner we have great latitude in how we control what happens on campus.” For instance, when a staff member left a personal weapon unattended last year, before the Firearms Policy was enacted, 28 West returned it and let the owner know it definitely did not belong at Reed.

Perhaps for this reason, nobody pulled the trigger, so to speak, on an official ban until 2010, when then-President Colin Diver contacted Gary about putting one into place. Colin and Gary believed that outright “stating our institutional and community values on the topic” was an important symbolic stance to take, and subsequent Senates concurred. Reed’s rifle traditions have now lain dormant for several years, and since the Firearms Policy’s passage was fairly uncontroversial, it seems unlikely that we will see another range on campus anytime soon.

Nick Morales, signator of the recently revived RSSK, told The Grail that he “doubts that we could find a spot or convince the school to build an on-campus facility . . . I mean, we don’t even have a real track, so the odds of us getting some type of gun range seem a bit unrealistic.” Instead, he’ll focus on obtaining transport to a public range in Portland, as well as finding funding for ammunition and rebuilding RSSK’s armory. “The old club just had a large collection of guns already owned by one of the club members’ families, so it was easy for them to have equipment available,” Morales explains. “I don’t have that kind of resources at my fingertips.”

While this latest iteration of Reed shooting sports is just getting off the ground, Morales is certain that his hobby can find a following again: “Most of the people whom I talked with during the fall activities fair were initially uninterested or against the club, but willing to talk with me in a calm and reasonable manner. Once we struck up a conversation they generally became much more willing to be a part of the club . . . We still have a ways to go before we’re likely to become cemented on campus but I’d like to think that we’re starting to get there.”

“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that I think a lot of people here see guns as contrary to their belief system and that’s something that I don’t quite understand because it doesn’t make a whole lot of historical sense.  Most people know about the early American labor movement but I don’t think most people realize that there were quite a few incidents where labor was saved because labor had guns. Whether it was at Ludlow or against the Pinkertons, guns and labor went together like the hammer and sickle. I’d also just like to point out that many of the people we tend to admire throughout history that wanted land reform or needed to stop a cruel despot used guns. The Lakota and other Native Americans used them, Che used them, Villa and Zapata, the Black Panthers, the Zululots of left-wing and/or indigenous groups that were in danger used guns. So I don’t see why we have to try and separate them from our liberal belief system.”

He may have a point. Administrative and Student Body tolerance of firearms on campus has declined over the years, for many reasons, but the hobby has persisted at Reed through twists and turns of institutional history. Just like the Sports Center shooting range, it might be rediscovered.