A bill that would lift campus gun bans passed the House Judiciary Committee on Friday with a party-line vote.
House Bill 240, sponsored by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would remove the Board of Regents’ power to ban guns on campus. Anyone with a concealed weapons permit would be able to carry a concealed weapon on campus. Everyone else could openly carry a weapon.
Supporters said the bill would restore forsaken Second Amendment rights. Opponents worry more guns would lead to more gun violence.
“Our concern is that HB-240 says that all students and all members of the public should be allowed to carry guns on their hips or their coats anywhere on campus,” said Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education.
“This includes in class or into football stadiums or into dormitories,” he added.
McRae expressed other concerns about armed students, including an increased risk of accidental shootings and suicides.
An accidental shooting occurred on the first day of class in fall 2011 at the University of Montana when a student shot his friend in the hand with a .20-gauge shotgun.
McRae described the incident as “an isolated circumstance that was in violation of current policy,” but he said he worries more accidents would happen if more students had guns on campus.
Shortly after the incident, Residence Life and the Office of Public Safety changed the procedure for storing guns on campus, although the change was unrelated to the shooting.
Prior to 2012, students could keep guns locked in storage facilities in the residence halls, but now guns have to be held at the Office of Public Safety and can be checked out for hunting or sport shooting. Students can also keep weapons in locked vehicles on campus as long as the guns are unloaded and out of sight.
Only campus police officers can carry weapons on campus.
“We think (our policy) is a responsible balance,” said Peggy Kuhr, UM’s vice president for integrated communications.
“The University sees no need to change that policy, and the president is opposed to a change.”
University of Montana Chief of Police Gary Taylor said in the event of a shooting on campus, more students with guns would only create more confusion for police.
“When you’ve got multiple firearms and people waving them around, you don’t know who’s helping you and who’s against you,” Taylor said.
Mental health is another major concern.
Rep. Margie MacDonald, a Democrat from Billings and vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, voted against HB-240. She warned about the danger of increasing suicide rates in a state already leading the nation in that category.
MacDonald pointed out that mental illnesses often aren’t displayed until college when young people experience more independence and stress.
“You will have dozens, if not hundreds, of students who are dealing with serious mental health problems who are armed,” MacDonald said.
Since the start of fall semester, two students have committed suicide in student housing at UM.
Because the community grapples not only with suicide but also sexual assault, some women say guns would put their minds at ease.
“I feel safer with a gun,” said Emily Royer, a 26-year-old law student from Bozeman.
Royer said she doesn’t support allowing concealed weapons in banks or other restricted areas, but she feels differently about campus because some students call it home.
“I do feel that people should be able to defend themselves where they live,” Royer said.
In Montana, the Board of Regents, the governing body of all Montana University System schools, decides whether weapons are allowed on campuses. No law allows or prohibits guns on campus.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said constitutional rights are the heart of HB-240.
“Although the Board of Regents is given full authority to manage the university system,” Marbut said, “they’re not given any power to take away people’s rights.”
UM political science professor James Lopach said the issue is not so clear-cut.
“The second amendment is not an absolute right,” Lopach said, adding that two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases allowed limitations on the right to bear arms in certain locations.
Lopach agreed that the Board of Regents’ decision to prevent students from carrying weapons on campus is, in fact, a limitation on the Second Amendment.
“But,” Lopach said, “the real question is, is it a constitutional limitation?”
Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi mandate campuses to allow concealed weapons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, 21 states prevent concealed weapons from being carried on campuses, including North Dakota, Wyoming and Texas.
The definition of a concealed weapon varies from state to state.
Marbut said Montana law defines a concealed weapon as one that is “wholly or partially covered by clothing or wearing apparel.” That means a gun in the glove box of a car or even a purse or backpack isn’t considered concealed and can be carried without any permit.
HB-240 is one bill in a slew of pro-gun legislation in the state Legislature this session. At least nine such bills have been introduced in the House. Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel has sponsored three of those bills.
Kerns’ HB-358 would allow concealed weapon permit holders to have weapons in banks, government buildings and anywhere alcohol is served — three places Montana allows only open-carry of weapons.
HB-304 would allow Montanans to decide whether they merit a concealed weapons permit. A person caught with a concealed weapon inside city limits, where permits are required, would not be in violation of the law as long as he or she would be eligible for a permit. It wouldn’t be necessary to actually obtain a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon.
Kerns’ HB-205 would also legalize the use of suppressors for hunting. Silencers are included in this category, along with devices that hide the flash of light from firing a gun. Opponents say this would make poaching easier.
Kerns’ three bills passed the House Judiciary Committee last week with party-line votes and move to the full House floor with HB-240. The House votes on HB-240 this week.