MISSOULA — A bill permitting the possession of firearms on Montana’s college campuses also looks to strip authority from the Montana Board of Regents to regulate weapons on university property, raising the possibility of a constitutional showdown if the bill becomes law.
Sponsored by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, House Bill 240 would allow firearms on campus and prohibit the Board of Regents, along with the Montana University System, from regulating or restricting the possession of guns on school property.
The legislation passed the House last week on a 58-31 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, which will take up the measure after transmittal.
On Monday, Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Montana University System, said the bill, as written, would permit all members of the public, including students, to carry firearms anywhere on campus – on the hip, openly or in their coats – if licensed to do so.
McRae said that includes classrooms, football games and other college activities where weapons have long been restricted.
“We’re concerned about that,” McRae said. “We do not believe that scenario reduces the risk of people being injured by firearms. We’ll continue through this legislative process to encourage a do not pass of this bill.”
The Montana Board of Regents currently has policies regulating firearms on public campuses across the state. The law has been unchanged for years, allowing only trained and certified security officers to carry weapons on school grounds.
Students must store their firearms in campus gun lockers. They can access their weapons to hunt and sport shoot, but they cannot carry them in class or handle them in dorms.
Smith’s bill attempts to change that by stripping the Board of Regents of its authority to set campus gun policies. The legislation aims to “prohibit the Board of Regents and University System employees from infringing on an individual’s constitutional rights.”
McRae said legal staff has noted a potential constitutional conflict with the current bill, as it looks to reduce the Board of Regents’ authority to set and enforce campus policies.
“We try to be judicious when we oppose legislation, not to flaunt or wave that constitutional issue, as legislators grow tired of it,” McRae said. “Rather than the University System relying on constitutional questions down the line, we’d like to see legislators, from Day One, own the potential impacts of the legislation they vote on. We don’t think this (bill) is a good public safety policy.”
Jason Johnson, communications director for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, said the department supports the legislation from a constitutional perspective.
“We’re not concerned about law-abiding students that have firearms,” said Johnson. “We support gun ownership and the right to protect one’s self.”
Supporters of the bill have argued that so-called gun-free zones, such as schools, create an illusion of safety. Those intent on committing crimes, they argue, aren’t intent on following the law.
“You can put lots of policies in place, but it’s the criminals we’re concerned about,” Johnson said. “As far as concealed carry, it’s something we see a lot of. We do background investigations on them, and we do our best to make sure those who shouldn’t own them don’t have them.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states currently have an outright ban on carrying concealed weapons on college and university campuses.
Montana remains one of 24 states where the decision to ban or allow concealed weapons on campus is made by individual colleges and universities.
In Montana, that authority has historically been given to the Board of Regents. The current legislation would change that.
“The Board of Regents and units of the University System may not regulate or restrict the possession, transportation, or storage of firearms upon or within university system property,” reads the bill.