Legislators vote to allow guns on public campuses

The Montana House of Representatives voted Feb. 25 to endorse a measure that would override a long-standing Board of Regents policy prohibiting firearms on university campuses. Currently, only security officers and students transporting traditional rifles and shotguns to residence hall storage are allowed to have firearms on campus.

House Bill 240, which passed on a 58-41 vote Feb. 25, argues that the Montana Board of Regents has no authority to impose significant restrictions on firearms as part of campus policies. Acknowledging that the regents have substantial autonomy to manage the Montana University System’s affairs, the bill says the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment rights should take precedence.

The bill also calls zones where firearms are banned “dangerous” on the grounds that they “create an unreasonable expectation of government-provided safety.”

Associate Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae, who testified against the bill, said the university system is concerned that the measure would “welcome” students and others to carry loaded firearms into classrooms, football games and residence halls.

“We see no evidence that those conditions would provide for a safer campus,” McRae said, adding that “we have great concerns about the possibilities or potential for mishaps or misfires.”

Before taking effect, the bill still needs to pass the Republican-dominated Montana Senate and be signed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. When asked about the measure during a Bozeman appearance Feb. 14, Bullock said he was not yet ready to take a position on the issue.

If signed into law, the measure is also likely to face a legal challenge on the grounds that it violates the Montana Constitution, which designates the Board of Regents as the sole authority to set policy for the university system.

“It seems like a dangerous precedent,” said Kiah Abbey, MSU’s student body president, adding that she is concerned by the push to take power away from the regents. “I just don’t see why we need 14,000 people carrying firearms on campus,” she commented. “We have a university police department.”

Abbey added that she understands that some students have concerns with the policy, and urged them to focus their efforts on lobbying the regents instead of legislators.

Lana Lake, a former student senator and College Republicans president, said she believes students should be able to carry concealed weapons on campus. Acknowledging that “it’s a touchy issue,” she said that criminals will not follow gun laws anyway.

“Guns aren’t inherently evil — at the end of the day, it’s the people behind them,” she said, adding that it makes more sense to focus on outreach to people with mental health issues.

On that note, Abbey agreed, commenting, “We really need to be taking care of the issues behind the use of guns.”