MSU Wild

Prospective students are led on a tour of Montana State’s campus on Feb. 18.

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The Montana University System wants public input as it prepares to implement a controversial law that would allow concealed carry on Montana college campuses.

During Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education staff said it was researching how best to enact the law and planned to prioritize comments from residents throughout the process.

House Bill 102, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Feb. 18, limits restrictions the university system can place on firearms on its campuses.

The law, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, also allows people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit in most public settings, and to carry in state and local government offices with a permit.

“The board is going to have some significant conversations and decisions around the implementation of this bill,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. “… We’re working to get our arms around what similar legislation has done.”

The university system opposed the bill as it moved through the House and Senate. The new regulations passed in large part along party lines.

Christian said OCHE negotiated an amendment for a later implementation date of June 1 and another to prohibit firearms during sports and entertainment events on campus.

“I’m happy that although we opposed it, we were able to get the amendment to get the implementation extended to June 1 to think through best practices,” he said.

Christian said the university system was collecting information and implementation strategies from other states that have enacted similar legislation. He expected to have concrete steps towards implementing the law before the Board of Regents’ meeting in May.

“Our top priority is to keep our campuses and campus communities safe,” he said.

The university system also plans to offer opportunities for public comment and input before the May meeting.

“There’s lots of people anxious to weigh in,” he said. “… We need to let this work be done and get our collective minds around it and that will include a lot of voices.”

Regent Loren Bough, one of the newest members of the board, said there might be a perception that it is possible for the university system to reverse concealed carry on campuses or exclude themselves from it but it was “important to note that this is law and we now need to focus on how we implement it safely.”

Opponents of the law have voiced safety concerns on college campuses, for both students and staff.

The Montana Federation of Public Employees has said some of its members, including university employees and police officers, are worried about their safety.

Supporters of the bill include the National Rifle Association, the National Association for Gun Rights and the Montana Shooting Sports Association. They have said it would allow responsible gun owners to carry firearms to protect themselves and others.

During Thursday’s meeting, OCHE staff also highlighted House Bill 112, a bill that would ban trans athletes from participating in sports aligned with their gender at the K-12 and college level.

Ali Bovingdon, chief legal counsel for the university system, said OCHE had two concerns with the bill. The bill violates the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s inclusion policies and would jeopardize the chance for any campus in the university system to hold NCAA tournaments.

One estimate by an OCHE staff member put the total revenue of a town hosting a tournament at $5 million to $10 million in one weekend.

“Another piece that is problematic is it would also violate the Biden administration’s executive order on Title IX,” Bovingdon said.

President Joe Biden on March 8 signed an order directing the Education Department “to consider suspending, revising or rescinding” any policies that fail to protect students.

In order to receive federal funding, educational institutions are required to adhere to Titile IX policies. If passed, HB 112 could threaten about $350 million in federal funds, primarily student loans and financing, Bovingdon said.

When the bill was in the House, OCHE appeared as an informational witness and did not oppose or support the bill. Bovingdon said they are considering opposing the bill as it makes its way through the Senate.

She also highlighted a similar bill that was passed in Idaho and was met with immediate legal challenge. She said it is likely that if Montana’s bill were to pass, the American Civil Liberties Union would challenge it.

OCHE staff also said they were communicating with the Legislature on how the recently passed federal COVID-19 relief package would impact university system funding.

“The legislation is a day-and-a-half old but we’re working as quickly as we can to digest that,” Christian said.

He said most of the resources are earmarked for students, who will need to apply for the funds. OCHE will communicate to campuses as more information is available, he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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