Deciding the future of guns at MSU

If passed, Senate Bill (SB) 143, known as “campus carry”, will allow students and faculty to openly carry weapons on MSU’s campus, as well as other campuses in Montana. On most university campuses in the U.S., including MSU, the carrying of weapons is illegal except by law enforcement. SB 143, introduced in the 2015 legislative session by Senator Cary Smith (Billings-R), aims to change this by allowing students and faculty to carry cased or holstered weapons on Montana’s campuses.

The Montana Senate voted 26-23 to pass SB 143 on Feb. 5. The bill was then transferred to the House of Representatives. The hearing for SB 143 is scheduled for March 10. If the House passes the bill it will be placed before Gov. Steve Bullock, who will decide whether or not to veto the bill.

 

What is SB 143?

Currently seven states — Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin — allow weapons to be carried on university property; this year 10 more are discussing bills that would legalize carrying weapons on campus.

The Montana University System (MUS) maintains the policy that while students can store firearms in their vehicles or within locked storage rooms inside the dorms, the carry of firearms on campus is not allowed. If passed, SB 143 would prohibit the Board of Regents (BOR) from regulating or restricting the possession of firearms on university territory, with some exceptions.

The bill would legalize the carrying of holstered or cased weapons on state campuses for individuals with appropriate permits. SB 143 allows the BOR to retain the authority to regulate unholstered carry, dormitory storage, pointing guns at another person, the securing of weapons and the firing and possession of guns at campus events where alcohol is served.

If SB 143 is approved, individuals will be able to carry weapons if they have a valid license. To qualify for a license, an individual must be a Montana resident, hold a valid form of identification issued by the state, be at least 18 years of age, demonstrate competency with a firearm and undergo a background check. Also, carrying weapons while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a punishable offense, regardless of license. Proponents and opponents of the bill differ on whether these standards are sufficient to ensure campus security.

The same policies were proposed in another bill introduced in the 2013 legislative session. Named HB 240, the bill was also introduced by Smith, then a House representative. HB 240 passed through the Senate and the House before it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Bullock, who stated that the law might “unconstitutionally intrude” on the BOR’s authority to set policy on state campuses.

 

Proponents Stance

As SB 143 moves through legislature the issue of carrying weapons on campus remains a polarizing topic. Proponents of the bill have said that arming students could serve as a deterrent against sexual assaults and mass shootings while opponents of the bill argue that potential mixing of firearms on campus or at campus events where alcohol is served is dangerous.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and author of SB 143, believes that students are responsible enough to carry weapons and argues that allowing the carrying of weapons is a countermeasure to potential violence on campus. “There is a fallacy that says that if we adopt a policy saying criminals are not allowed to commit mayhem on campus that suddenly everybody is safe and the university system has done everything it needs to keep students safe.”

Marbut explained why he thinks the current policies are ineffective: “Do you think it is reasonable to suppose that a person would dig through administrative policies by the university and learn that guns are not allowed on campus and say ‘I need to rethink my mayhem, because it would violate policy?’ I can’t express in polite language how idiotic that rationale is.”

The author of the bill added that SB 143 reinforces the constitutional right to bear arms as stated in the Second Amendment. “The big principle at stake in Montana is this: although the constitution gives the BOR a lot of authority to manage the affairs of the university system, it gives the Board no authority whatsoever to contravene or abolish the Montana Constitution … We think it needs to be declared, especially in terms of the second amendment, that the BOR is simply not given authority to suspend the constitution.”

Student support for the bill is varied. “I can understand if some students want to carry weapons on campus for self-defense. The student must be able to really safely handle firearms though,” sophomore Randi White said.

 

University stance

According to Tracy Ellig, MSU’s executive director of communications, MSU is opposed to SB 143. Ellig explained MSU’s stance and reasoning on the issue. “First, the stance I’m describing isn’t just MSU, it is for all eight campuses of the Montana University System: The system is opposed to the bill. We think current rules give students adequate access to firearms they own and may want to use for hunting or other recreational shooting … Students cannot keep guns on their person or in their room. The general public is not allowed to bring guns on campus either.”

Ellig continued to explain possible dangers of people bringing guns on campus. “SB 143 would allow firearms to both be carried openly and by those with conceal and carry permits anywhere on campus with very few exceptions. The system’s stance is that university campuses are already among the safest places there are. Allowing guns into classrooms, residence halls, sporting events, laboratories and virtually every other place will not make the campuses safer.”

MSU’s stance considers how providing students with easy access to firearms could be harmful. “We are concerned about the use of guns in suicides knowing that some students suffer from stress and loneliness. Easy access to a gun in those situations doesn’t seem wise. Nor does it seem wise to have guns readily available among such a dense population in which some over-consume alcohol,” Ellig said. “Amongst some students, it doesn’t even take alcohol to make a bad decision. The explosion in Langford Hall is an example of a student horsing around with a very dangerous consequence. If guns are on campus and in residence hall rooms, we may see a tragedy just because someone was being irresponsible.”

MSU Police Chief Robert Putzke said the he and the MSU Police Department share the same position on SB 143 as the University. He pointed out that the number of crimes against persons (e.g. manslaughter, aggravated assaults, sex offenses) is and has been very low on campus for the past several years. He doubts whether allowing weapons to be carried on campus would further improve student safety, which means he has to focus on the potential risks involved.

Putzke is concerned about whether students who might carry weapons would be qualified to respond to a campus shooting situation. “As police officers we train on a monthly basis to maintain proficiency with our firearms. If we allow people to carry firearms on campus that have undergone training to the level of field carry permit, I don’t think they would be sufficiently trained and prepared to be able to effectively engage a campus shooter.”

Both on and off campus the issue of allowing weapons to be carried on Montana’s universities continues to be debated. “It’s a pretty polarizing topic. There’s a lot of discussion of what this would do, what the consequences are, what are the benefits from it and whether it is constitutional or not,” ASMSU Lobbyist Garrett Lankford said. He went on to say that ASMSU has chosen not to take a stance on SB 143 and will continue to focus on other bills.

 

Moving Forward

“There was a lot of debate [in the Senate] and there will be a lot of debate with the House,” Lankford said, “It’s my guess the House will pass it.”

Levi Krutzfeldt, who graduated in Fall 2014 from MSU and was a member of the Bozeman chapter of the national organization Students for Concealed Carry (SCC) is dubious of the bill’s chances of making it past the governor’s desk. “I will tell you that during the last legislative session two years ago, the SCC group had more than a small part in getting the same bill all the way to the governor’s desk. Unfortunately, he vetoed it, and it’s my belief that it’s a waste of time to pursue this bill while he is still in office.”

Marbut is more hopeful and provided a few reasons why he thinks the governor may sign the bill. “One is that all these other states are doing it too and our governor may be influenced by that. The other more practical reason is that our governor has to stand for re-election next year. Typically governors are more cautious with their veto pen when they are facing re-election soon.”

The House of Representatives will hear the bill March 10.

 

Do you want to get involved in the 2015 Legislature?

  • Apply to be a member of the ASMSU Legislative Committee to discuss initiatives that will affect students. More information can be found at montana.edu/asmsu/ or at the ASMSU Office SUB 221.

Contact Garrett Lankford, ASMSU student lobbyist, at asmsustateleg@msu.montana.edu