Bill to allow guns on public campuses misguided

Last Thursday, MSU’s College Republicans gathered on Centennial Mall in support of a number of gun-related bills currently under consideration in the Montana Legislature. As I listened to them explain their positions to passersby, House Bill 240 popped up most frequently. HB 240 would allow students to carry firearms — either in the open or concealed — on campus. To many Montanans, this might seem logical, but closer analysis reveals serious flaws in the reasoning behind the bill.

First, on its face, HB 240 is unconstitutional. While unconstitutionality hasn’t stopped our legislators from pursuing their agendas in previous sessions (or this one), it raises issues immediately. The Montana Constitution clearly delegates responsibility to “supervise, coordinate, manage and control” the entire university system to the Board of Regents. Presumably, that includes things like implementing a campus-wide gun policy.

For the Legislature to impose open carry of firearms on university campuses oversteps their constitutional limits and would not likely hold up to judicial scrutiny. This is made all the more ironic by the bill’s purple prose about “prohibiting the Board of Regents … from infringing on an individual’s constitutional rights,” which serves only to obfuscate bill sponsor Rep. Cary Smith’s true purpose.

On the poster where the College Republicans were collecting supportive messages, one student wrote, “If you want to make campus safer … do something about it!” While presumably well-intentioned, this statement sets up a ridiculous straw man. With a few unfortunate exceptions, MSU is an incredibly safe place to be. As I’ve written before, in its 120-year history, MSU has had only one convicted murder. And nothing would have stopped the shooter in that instance.

Text: "Support HB 240 -- CAMPUS CONCEALED CARRY. If you want campus to be safer ... do something about it! Give good guys guns! Protect students on and off campus."
Text: “Support HB 240 — CAMPUS CONCEALED CARRY. If you want campus to be safer … do something about it! Give good guys guns! Protect students on and off campus.”

Once again, the Legislature is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, with a proposal that would exacerbate potential harms. To ignore this perspective is to invite judicial scrutiny on a measure that could cause undue harm with a pretense of solving a virtually non-existent problem. It is doubtful that challenging the Board of Regents’ authority in this manner would yield a desirable outcome for the legislature.

And as Mother Jones has exhaustively detailed following the post-Newtown national debate, not a single one of the 62 mass shootings that have happened in the past three decades was stopped by a “good guy with a gun.” The top five most commonly cited examples of armed civilians stopping mass shooters don’t hold up under scrutiny either.

The New York Times detailed in an editorial, published after NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s Newtown statements, that expecting the average citizen to employ deadly precision in moments of crisis is simply not realistic.  In addition to a background check, Montanans requesting a concealed carry permit are required to undergo a basic firearms “familiarity” course, including hunter’s safety or other firearms safety courses. While those courses are immensely valuable, they cannot convey the necessary training to react to an active shooter situation with cold, calculated skill. Police officers, for example, train continually to maintain their abilities and shoot only as a last resort, due to the potential for friendly fire.

Simply put, MSU is an incredibly safe place to be, and there is no demonstrable need for students and professors to arm themselves. Arguing otherwise sets up an unsupportable straw man. As Ezra Klein details in his WonkBlog, however, more guns do tend to mean more homicides — and more suicides.

Two weeks ago, I detailed a history of some of MSU’s most interesting run-ins with guns. In the interviews I conducted with MSU Police Chief Robert Putzke and Residence Life Director Tammie Brown, they both indicated that the current system works — and works well. Currently, students are allowed to store and clean traditional rifles, shotguns, and bows in rooms provided by ResLife. They’re not allowed to store them in their vehicles or their dorm rooms.

Brown explained that this pragmatic policy confronts the reality of gun ownership in Montana, while still allowing students the convenience to follow their passions of hunting or target shooting.

Let’s be clear: What we need is a pragmatic policy that acknowledges the nuances of the gun debate. No one is proposing banning guns, despite the strawmen that haunt the nightmares of LaPierre and others. And MSU has proven itself exceptionally safe without them for the past 120 years.