MSU Wild

A student leaves the Strand Union Building on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Feb. 18, 2021, at Montana State University.

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Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation on Thursday that will expand where gun owners may carry firearms.

House Bill 102 allows people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit in most public settings, including banks and bars. Those with a permit will be able to carry in state and local government offices, as well.

The bill also limits restrictions the state university system can place on firearms on college campuses, including at Montana State University.

However, private property owners and tenants are able to ban firearms on their premises.

Gianforte said the bill would protect Second Amendment rights and make Montana safer.

“Gun control measures don’t prevent criminals from perpetuating violence or crime. Gun control measures step on the rights of law abiding citizens,” he said at a signing ceremony on Thursday afternoon. “And our Second Amendment is very clear: ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ Every law abiding Montanan should be able to defend themselves and their loved ones.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, passed the House and Senate earlier this month largely along party lines.

“The idea of self-defense has been a pillar in our society since even before the founding of our country. It’s a right that’s given by God and granted in the constitution,” Berglee said at Thursday’s event. “It’s my pleasure to bring House Bill 102, recognizing that the citizens of Montana have the ability to defend themselves, and I trust them with that responsibility.”

Supporters, which include the National Rifle Association, the National Association for Gun Rights and the Montana Shooting Sports Association, have said the bill would reduce restrictions that prevent responsible gun owners from carrying firearms to protect themselves and others.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen also endorsed the bill.

“At a time when the president is calling for state-level gun registries, strong legislation affirming Montanans’ gun rights is more important than ever,” Knudsen said in a statement. “No bill in the last 20 years has done more to protect our fundamental right to keep and bear arms than Representative Seth Berglee’s bill that was signed into law today.”

Opponents have voiced safety concerns, particularly in regard to college campuses.

The Montana Federation of Public Employees said some of its members, which include university employees and police officers, are worried about the bill becoming law.

“My members who work on campuses are concerned about students carrying guns on campus and in dorms,” said Amanda Curtis, the federation’s president, on Thursday. “They’re worried about safety.”

Some opponents have also questioned whether the bill was constitutional.

In a legal note, the Legislative Services Division said the bill could “raise potential constitutional conformity issues” with the Montana constitution, which says the Board of Regents shall “have full power, responsibility and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system.”

The university system initially raised questions about the bill, but on Thursday, Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education, said amendments made to the bill as it worked its way through the state Legislature “improved it in our view.”

The amendments include allowing the university system to restrict firearms at events staffed by university police, to require proof of firearms training and to delay the effective day to June 1 rather than upon Gianforte’s signing of the bill.

The Office of the Commission of Higher Education is now researching policies from other states with similar laws, and the Board of Regents will likely update its campus firearms policy at its May meeting.

“Keeping our campuses safe places to teach, learn, live and grow is our highest priority,” McRae said.

This is not the first time state lawmakers have tried to permit concealed carry on college campuses. In 2013, a similar bill passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who cited safety and constitutional concerns. In 2015, a related bill cleared the Senate and then died in the House.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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