Guns on campus policy drafted, public comment session scheduled Wednesday

Faculty, student leaders urge Regents to challenge law

By: - May 10, 2021 8:32 pm

Guns and laws (Photo illustration by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

Provide bulletproof vests and headgear for all students, faculty and staff — and have the Montana Legislature pick up the tab. Request an armed police presence in classrooms, especially large lecture halls. Unseal building windows so university employees who don’t want to shoot can jump out.

That’s some of the reaction so far to House Bill 102 to allow concealed and open carry in public places, including campuses. Approved by the Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte, the law takes effect June 1 for the Montana University System.

Wednesday, a committee of the Montana Board of Regents hears public input on a draft policy to implement the new law. The Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education counted Monday more than 1,500 comments in advance of the 3 p.m. listening session Wednesday.

“I probably talk about it every day,” said Noah Durnell, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. “It’s a huge concern for students right now. COVID-19 is coming down, and I think the new crisis that’s coming into play that’s scaring students when returning to the university in the fall is the possibility of open carry on campus.”

The listening session by the Academic, Research and Student Affairs Committee takes place prior to the Board of Regents meeting May 26-27 when a policy is expected to be on the agenda for consideration.

A Montana Board of Regents committee listening session will take place 3 p.m. Wednesday, May 12, via Zoom on a draft policy for implementing a law that allows people to carry guns on campus. People who wish to comment may register here: https://mus-edu.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_bNof7h8EQOSCLdzeXdEZPw. People who want to tune into the session may do so here: https://mus.edu/board/committee-meeting-stream.html. The listening session takes place during the Academic, Research and Student Affairs Committee meeting.

The policy notes anyone 18 years or older who is eligible to have a firearm under state or federal law and meets “minimum safety and training requirements” can possess a gun on a Montana University System campus and in housing unless otherwise prohibited.

“Consistent with the Montana Operations Manual, a person may not carry a concealed firearm without a valid permit issued pursuant § 45-8-321, MCA or recognized pursuant to § 45-8-329, MCA, or open carry a firearm in a state building in areas where classes are taught,” reads part of the draft policy.

The recommendations for Kevlar vests, police security and unsealed windows were among the comments made in a summary of feedback linked to a report on a recent agenda of the University of Montana Faculty Senate. Some people who submitted comments expressed frustration with the Board of Regents and at least one did so with leadership at the Capitol.

“I’m not sure there is anything we can do considering we have complete imbeciles in charge in Helena,” said one person; the compilation does not include names.

Monday, both a student and faculty leader didn’t only weigh in on the policy itself and the idea of having people besides law enforcement carrying guns on campus. They also said they want the Board of Regents to fight the law’s potential usurpation of the Board’s authority to supervise the Montana University System.

“Montana University System Faculty Association Representatives (MUSFAR) and the faculty senators they represent across the MUS (Montana University System) believe that the Legislature has overstepped the Constitutional authority of the MUS Board of Regents to govern the MUS campuses, and the best way to ensure MT Constitutional integrity is to challenge legislative overreach in court,” said Michael Brody, chairman of the faculty senate at Montana State University, in an email Monday.

Durnell said writing a policy based on a law that shouldn’t be on the books in the first place could set a bad precedent. The Board of Regents is a student-facing organization, he said, but he believes the law oversteps the Board’s ability to make the best decisions for students.

“I fear that politics is interfering with that currently,” Durnell said.

The draft policy includes the requirement that a person “meets the minimum safety measures and training required to possess a firearm,” and as such, provide for certification documentation of a concealed weapons permit from Montana or permit from another state with reciprocity. Alternately, the person must provide another firearms safety certificate such as for hunter education, a law enforcement training course, or evidence of military service in which they were found to be qualified to operate firearms, including handguns.

The policy also requires a person living on campus to complete a Campus Life Safety course. The draft notes that the university may deny certification to someone who has a disciplinary history arising out of interpersonal violence or substance abuse. The policy notes it applies to anyone on campus including vendors and visitors.

Helen Thigpen, deputy legal counsel for the Commissioner’s Office, said comments will be incorporated into a revised policy to present to the Board of Regents at its May meeting. She said the Board may adopt a policy, approve an amended policy, or not adopt a policy then, but those actions are separate from any Constitutional issues.

“Certainly, adopting the policy does not concede the question of whether House Bill 102 is Constitutional,” Thigpen said Monday. “At OCHE (the Commissioner’s Office), we think the responsible thing to do at this point is for us to put a policy in front of the Board for the Board to consider.”

The current Board policy allows law enforcement authorities or private security officers to carry firearms on campus, and it notes campuses may establish regulations governing the transportation and storage of firearms. UM, for instance, requires campus residents to store firearms such as hunting rifles with campus police.

Durnell shared one way the new policy raises concerns for students living in the dorms. The draft notes campus residents need to notify the university if they intend to store a firearm in their dorm room and whether they consent to be assigned to a roommate who will keep a firearm in their room.

But Durnell said a gunshot wouldn’t necessarily be contained within the four walls of a room, and a dorm could have someone living on every side of it. So he said an accidental firing has great potential to harm others.

“Basically, wherever it goes, you’re surrounded by people 360 degrees,” he said.

Durnell also said he worries about mental health. If a gun is easily accessible to a student who wants to commit suicide in a dorm room, it might not give the student enough time to make another decision. He worries about faculty as well.

“I worry about retaliation against faculty now with a more accessible means of firearms,” Durnell said.

Brody, at MSU, also relayed other concerns about the draft policy. (In an email, Chris Palmer, chair of the Faculty Senate at UM, said he had just returned from being away from internet service and had no further comment beyond the information MSU provided.) Brody said some of the specific policies were recommendations faculty across the system already made.

“In general, faculty believe that the policy does not go far enough in establishing safeguards for the university community,” Brody said. “For example, faculty are often alone in their offices working when students drop in unexpectedly to speak with them sometime about critical and contentious issues.

“If the student is carrying a firearm, this has the potential to create anxiety and stress and would be considered a psychological hazard in the workplace. Guns in faculty and staff offices is not addressed in the proposed policy.”

In the compilation of comments on the UM Faculty Senate website, at least one commenter suggested the university system work a possible loophole in the law. The law restricts firearms in places where alcohol is authorized, and the commenter said a campus could “authorize” alcohol in classrooms, and therefore restrict guns in classrooms, but also in reality not provide alcohol in classrooms.

In the comments, at least one person expressed particular concern for LGBTQ people and women given rates of violence against them and the need to protect those groups. But safety in general is a concern, according to another writer: “Firearms on campus will harm (the) MUS’ ability to attract foreign students, faculty, and staff who may see MUS as a dangerous work environment.”

As drafted, the policy notes that guns may be restricted in places that serve K-12 youth groups or provide child care; places where licensed health care professionals treat patients; high hazard areas such as laboratories; or places where research subjects are high risk, such as people diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Thigpen, deputy legal counsel in the Commissioner’s Office, said some of the practical questions that are coming up, such as whether faculty can individually prohibit firearms in their classrooms, still need to be addressed. Generally, she said the safety of students, staff and faculty remains the university system’s top priority.

“We’re aware of everyone’s concerns and care about them deeply,” Thigpen said.

In his email, Brody said faculty already have told the Commissioner’s Office that the Board of Regents needs to challenge the constitutionality of the law. He also said faculty members may take the matter on if necessary and said they are concerned about laws in addition to HB102.

“If the (Board of Regents) is not going to challenge the constitutionality of the law, MUS faculty are in discussion about how to challenge the laws in court,” Brody said.

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Keila Szpaller
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.”

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