HELENA – A bill allowing students, faculty and others to carry concealed weapons at the University of Montana and other colleges across the state went down to defeat Tuesday, narrowly rejected by the House.
“Putting guns on campuses is a really bad idea, and it’s terrible policy,” said Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, an adjunct instructor at Montana State University. “I work with college students. I’m here to tell you some of them are responsible; some of them, not so much.”
Woods said the only reason the Legislature is considering the idea is because a “powerful gun lobby” wants to “override local control.”
The House rejected Senate Bill 143 on a 51-49 vote, with 10 Republicans joining all 41 House Democrats in voting against the bill.
SB143, sponsored by Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would prohibit the Board of Regents from banning firearms on campus except under very specific circumstances, such as at events where alcohol is served. If the bill passed, anyone with a concealed weapon permit could possess and carry a gun on campus.
The Board of Regents, which governs the state university system, has prohibited the carrying of weapons on Montana campuses since 1990. Students who own firearms can store them with campus security while at school. The university system opposed SB143.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Red Lodge, who carried the bill on the House floor, said holders of concealed weapon permits are responsible, law-abiding citizens and make up only about 4 percent of the population.
Allowing them to carry weapons on campus doesn’t pose a safety threat and could prevent mass shootings, such as those that have occurred on other campuses, he said.
“That’s really what this bill is about,” Berglee said. “The Montana Constitution states that we have a right to bear arms in defense of our person. ... We’re talking about having a gun, or a firearm, that is accessible to us to defend ourselves, should the situation arise.”
House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said recent mass shootings on U.S. college campuses are the best reason for supporting the bill.
“What do all of these incidents have in common?” he said. “Gun-free zones. Bad guys having access to unarmed victims. That is unacceptable to me and I think it should be unacceptable to you.”
Opponents, however, said the bill would make campuses less safe.
Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, said a friend of his, Tim Hull, was shot and killed on the Montana Tech campus in Butte in 1982, and that Hull’s father had pleaded with Welborn to vote against the bill.
“I’ve got a lot of other notes from my district, and not one of them is asking me to come up here and vote for this piece of legislation,” he said.
Woods said the gun lobby is the driving force behind the bill, but “they are not the ones who will be taking the risk” with the policy.
“It’s those of us who live and work on campuses, who will be assuming the risks of this policy,” he said. “It will be those of us who are sending our sons and daughters to university campuses, who will be taking the risk on this policy.”