Montana is famous for our love of the great outdoors, and Montanans willingly pay the “wilderness tax,” i.e., lower wages so we can enjoy great outdoor recreation. But the wilderness tax, combined with exploding housing costs, day care, health care, etc., is excluding working Montanans from the American Dream. Montana needs a vibrant public university system to compete, but our public universities are under attack.
The opponents of public education in the legislature passed, and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed, a series of bills jeopardizing public education. Most threatening is House Bill 102, the new “concealed carry” law. Along with HB 112, HB 218, HB 349 (and others), HB 102 seeks to break down the essential constitutional protections endowed in the Board of Regents. HB 102 stands for loaded, unsecured weapons on campus. It targets our Montana University System students, and public education itself, for death.
Recreation in the great outdoors includes firearms, and they are part of our western culture. Yet, Montana has nearly the highest rate in the USA for firearm-related suicides, accidents and crime because we fail to properly secure our firearms. Montanan’s firearm romance blinds us to the reality that an unsecured rifle can kill a loved one instead of an elk. It propagates the myth that loaded, loose firearms make our campuses safer.
We must secure our firearms as any responsible gun owner or sportsman’s group recommends: Lock up your guns, lock the ammo elsewhere and keep the combination secret. A loaded, unlocked weapon floating around campus is not secured. It is an accident, suicide or homicide waiting to take another student’s young life. A firearm gone wrong.
HB 102 doubles down on this mortality by mandating unsecured firearms on our campuses. The current, responsible MUS firearms policy doesn’t "ban guns" but they must be properly secured (locked up) on campus. They can be checked out for hunting or sport shooting 24/7/365. “Secured” does not include a loaded gun in a dorm room, backpack or holster under a jacket. Now, HB 102 seeks to recklessly overturn our effective/protective campus firearm security policy and violate the Montana Constitution.
Article X of our Montana Constitution designates regents as the gatekeeper, with the “full authority to govern and manage" the MUS. This provision is designed to prevent political interference in public education, to keep our campuses safe so our students can fulfill their full educational potential and pursue their dreams. Should the board adopt HB 102, then their constitutional authority is gone. Helena politicians will try legislating anything, including: The sports students can play (HB 112), defining free speech on campus (HB 218) and micromanaging student government (HB 349). Montana’s constitutional wisdom would be cast aside, so that our students, many of whom are not old enough to legally consume alcohol, can tote concealed weapons around campus. This will not only kill students, but also the future of public education in Montana.
Any definition of "insanity" must include a state government that altogether legislates a campus with concealed/unsecured weapons in classrooms, slashes suicide prevention funds and blocks students' right to vote. As for the $1 million for "firearm training" — that is blood money. It’s a bribe to tempt regents and dupe the public. Would we allow underage drinking on campus provided there is "training" for alcohol consumption? We must reject the entire nonsensical package.
Regents stand between life and death for our students and for public education. We need the board to stand strong by fulfilling their constitutional obligation. We are asking them reject HB 102, by litigation or otherwise, to protect our students and secure the future of public education in Montana.
Dr. Douglas Coffin, Ph.D. is a former Montana legislator (House District 93) from Missoula. He is a current professor of molecular genetics at the University of Montana. His opinions are his own and do not represent the university.