House starts session

Members of the Montana House of Representatives take the oath of office earlier this month in Helena.

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A bill making its way through the Montana House of Representatives could open the door for guns to be carried on college campuses, raising safety concerns and questions of constitutionality for some.

House Bill 102 would expand state gun law, allowing people with a concealed firearm permit to carry in restaurants and other places where alcohol is sold and in state and local government offices, including college campuses overseen by the Montana Board of Regents.

The bill would also limit the Board of Regents’ regulation of firearms on its campus. It states university system employees are prohibited from “enforcing or coercing compliance with any rule or regulation that diminishes or restricts the rights of the people to keep or bear arms.”

The university system’s policy on guns allows police officers to carry and provides for a secure location for students living on campus to store their guns.

“If students are gun owners and desire to have guns on campus, we do require they be stored in a locked safe facility,” said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education.

Per the Board of Regents policy, anyone other than campus police are not allowed to carry a firearm, he said.

The bill would provide restrictions in detention centers and federal facilities and would allow private property owners to prohibit firearms.

HB 102 was heard by the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, the third day of the legislature.

During the hearing, Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill was aimed at limiting “gun-free zones,” arguing they did nothing to keep people safe.

Berglee, who did not respond to requests for comment, said those zones did nothing to stop people trying to do wrong but inhibits people from having the ability and right to defend themselves.

Opponents to the bill say it doesn’t keep people safer and is unconstitutional in overriding the Board of Regents authority.

Amanda Curtis, president of Montana Federation of Public Employees, said having more guns in an academic setting is not more helpful.

The Montana Federation of Public Employees is a union representing over 20,000 public employees including university employees and police who would respond to a gun situation on campus, Curtis said.

“It is unconstitutional in that the constitution sets the Board of Regents as the authority over college campuses,” Curtis said, referring to the creation of the governing body in Montana’s 1972 constitution.

While she expects the bill to pass based on the makeup of the legislature, Curtis said ultimately the opponents to the bill “are going to prevail in court because as hard as Montana legislators want to try, they don’t supersede the Montana constitution.”

She said it is a safety concern for many campus employees with the union’s members worried it could lead to more gun incidents on campus.

“It would result in guns on campus that are not secured,” she said. “And best practices with firearms says that a secured firearm is safer.”

McRae said the university system’s opposition to the bill is based on student safety, facility management during events, and student mental wellness and suicide prevention.

He said states that have experimented with allowing guns on campuses have reported substantially more incidents of mishaps and guns accidentally going off. He said those instances are far more than those “where guns have been a solution on campus.”

McRae also said campuses are hosts to sporting and other events and allowing guns on campus would change those experiences.

He also pointed to the university system’s focus on suicide prevention and the rates of suicide by firearm. Montana data from 2019 shows 60% of the suicides in the state were by gun, he said.

“Suicide rates go up in relation to the proximity or the ease of access of guns,” he said.

McRae also said states that have passed laws allowing guns on campus have placed either age limitations or location limitations. The bill would allow anyone over the age of 18 years old with a concealed carry permit to carry a gun.

This is not the first time a bill has tried to allow gun carry on college campuses. In 2013, a similar bill passed both the Senate and House but was vetoed by the then-governor who cited safety and constitutional concerns, according to McRae. In 2015, a bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

“I sense stronger support this session for this kind of bill than I have in past sessions,” he said.

Supporters of the bill include gun-rights advocates and state law enforcement officials. During Wednesday’s hearing, Attorney General Austin Knudsen said during his time as a law student at the University of Montana, he was uncomfortable when he was unable to carry a gun.

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee is likely to take executive action on the bill on Monday. If it passed the committee, HB 102 would head for a vote in front of the full House of Representatives.

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

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