Guns on campus in Montana?

It’s just one bill Montana public higher education officials are tracking in the 2021 Montana Legislature

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

A bill that would allow people to carry guns on Montana campuses and another bill to change the way community colleges get money are already creating heartburn for higher education officials.

Tuesday, the Montana Board of Regents heard a list of bill proposals the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is tracking in the 2021 Montana Legislature.

House Bill 102 aims to reduce or cut altogether places where the state limits firearms – such as college campuses. Sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the bill also would prohibit the Montana University System and regents from restricting firearms.

“The purpose of (the new language) is to enhance the safety of people by expanding their legal ability to provide for their own defense by reducing or eliminating government-mandated places where only criminals are armed and where citizens are prevented from exercising their fundamental right to defend themselves and others,” reads the draft language.

It continues: “Any significant prohibition upon the possession of firearms at or on the various campuses of the Montana University System calls into question the rights that the people have reserved to protect themselves from government interference under Article II, section 12, of the Montana constitution.”

In previous sessions, similar bills have been proposed but have died or been vetoed.

At the meeting, Regent Martha Sheehy said the bill would have an effect on the board’s constitutional right and obligation to oversee campuses. She also said the availability of guns is one of the highest risk factors in suicide.

“My concerns in that regard are tied directly to our suicide prevention and our safety measures,” said Sheehy, a lawyer, in the meeting held via videoconference.

The bill is scheduled to be heard 8 a.m. Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee. The current Board of Regents policy says generally only campus police and contract security officers may carry firearms on campuses.

After the meeting, Kevin McRae said the Commissioner’s Office will testify in opposition to the bill. Student safety is the top concern, and he said data over the years has shown that campuses that do allow firearms have more instances of accidental shootings and misfires.

Some states do allow people to carry concealed weapons in dorms, but they also require permit holders to be 21 years old, said McRae, deputy commissioner and lobbyist for the legislative session. Idaho allows 18-year-olds to have concealed carry permits, he said, but the state doesn’t allow firearms in dorms or stadiums.

“This is the bill that would make Montana the only state in the nation where anybody who is 18 and has passed hunter safety can carry anywhere on campus,” McRae said.

The current policy also notes campuses can establish their own rules for storing guns. As an example, McRae said the University of Montana requires students who have firearms to keep them in a locker at the UM Police Department.

He said the bill also would create an awkward experience at sporting events. Currently, fans see workers at the gate check for glass bottles or flasks because alcohol isn’t allowed, but if the bill passed, fans would see firearms go through the door in security checks.

“We’re letting the guns in the stadium but not the Miller Lite can, Click To Tweet

At the meeting, the regents also heard objections from two community college presidents to the portion of House Bill 67 that would change their funding formula and tie it more closely to enrollment. Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, introduced the legislation; a hearing has not been scheduled on the bill, according the most recent legislative calendar.

Ron Slinger, president of Miles Communtiy College, said he appreciated the fact the formula in the bill tries to create an incentive for career and technical education, or CTE. However, he said linking college funding solely to the number of students who attend is “extremely dangerous with the fluctuations that could occur.”

“That is very troublesome to us. It does not give us a base to work off of,” Slinger said.

At the meeting, Deputy Commissioner of Budget and Planning Tyler Trevor noted hearings on the education portion of House Bill 2, the big budget bill, also will start next week, earlier in a legislative session than he can remember. The 2021 session kicked off Monday.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is expected to release his budget by Thursday.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”