Nicole Bealer doesn’t see guns as toys.
As a gun owner, Bealer sees guns beyond their recreational use. She thinks of them as tools, their primary purpose being to kill animals for food or for outdoor sports like hunting.
“Firearms are very closely tied to being a hunter for me,” she said. “I do enjoy going to the range, but I shoot because I’m preparing to hunt. I’m not quite recreational enough to just go spend money on ammo for shits and giggles.”
Before moving to Montana for college, Bealer didn’t have guns of her own. The only ones in her Texas household were her dad’s, who owned a .22 rifle, a .22 pistol and a .357 revolver. As an eight-year-old, she would often go to the gun range with her dad and brothers to shoot recreationally and learn first-hand about gun safety.
“Firearm safety was really big for my dad. He just always took it very seriously,” Bealer said. “He was a big proponent of keeping guns in a locked safe.”
For Bealer, a University of Montana wildlife biology junior from Houston, gun safety is something that she continuously practices, especially now that she’s a gun owner in a state where there are more guns than people.
At UM and across the Montana University System, the issue of guns on college campuses is becoming more of a reality, after House Bill 102 — one of the most unrestricted firearm policies in the country — passed in the Montana Legislature earlier in the spring.
The bill, as it stood after its passing, would allow for anyone on any Montana University System campus to carry a gun, openly or concealed. It also would allow anyone to conceal carry without a permit anywhere someone can open carry. HB 102 overrules the University’s current policy, which holds that no one except law enforcement may carry weapons on campus, and requires students, faculty and staff who wish to bring their firearms onto campus to store them with UMPD.
Now, the potential law is caught in legal limbo after the Montana Board of Regents sued the state last May, claiming the legislature overstepped its bounds by trying to control the universities. A Lewis and Clark County judge filed an injunction on May 28, which temporarily barred it from becoming a law. As it remains held in court, many have been left to figure out the potential implications of an HB 102-campus.
The passing of HB 102 affects concerned students like Bealer. While she feels comfortable with the idea of concealed gun carry, she does worry about the impact of guns in the hands of college students in a campus setting.
“I don’t love it. I don’t know if I trust the general population that much, especially college students,” she said. “Mental health-wise, we’re all over the place.”
Apart from her college life and delving into the hunting world of Montana, Bealer is the hunt coordinator at UM’s chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a nonprofit focusing on the outdoor heritage of hunting and fishing in North America. She helps educate students about hunting on Montana’s public lands and hosts firearm workshops specializing in gun safety for members who have never handled firearms.
While students certainly have been dealing with unknown variables in the face of this legislation, if there’s another person on UM’s campus getting headaches from the uncertainty of HB 102, it’s Chief of Police Brad Giffin.
“I think [HB 102] just wasn’t very well thought through,” he said. “The law is pretty broad when it comes to college campuses. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the laws that are on the books, but it’s my job to enforce them.”
If HB 102 escapes judicial hold-up, Giffin and UMPD would be in charge of enforcing the law’s policy around campus. Giffin said one of the most problematic parts of the bill is the open carry component to it. Confusion could arise from students holstering guns on campus.
Giffin has recently been working with schools such as the University of Wyoming and Texas A&M — who currently have campus concealed-carry policies — to see how they’re enforcing firearms. One of the main issues Giffin said officers at Wyoming have encountered is public negligence of where people can’t have firearms on campus.
Currently, Montana Board of Regents policy “prohibits carrying firearms on or at any campus of the Montana University System.” However, UMPD has a weapons storage vault where students, staff and faculty can safely store and access their firearms at any given time.
As the future of HB 102’s implementation remains in question, Bealer said she doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of seeing her peers “packing heat” around UM’s campus, given how immature students can be when it comes to guns.
“It’s an alarming idea to think of a bunch of freshmen with guns, especially from the dumb things I’ve seen young people do,” she said. “It’s a frightening idea that you could have easily accessible guns all the time in a sort of dorm setting.”