Members of public push back against guns on campus in Montana

Faculty, students, others urge litigation against House Bill 102, signed into law

By: - May 12, 2021 7:37 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Lindy Kolb, who has worked as a resident advisor at Montana State University, said she has faced belligerent students she is documenting for conduct violations.

Kolb said she was deeply concerned about a draft board policy to implement a law that allows guns on campus, and she said it’s inevitable that a person will be harmed as a result.

“Guns are tools, but so are hot plates, and we don’t allow those in the residence halls for safety reasons,” Kolb said.

Wednesday, a committee of the Montana Board of Regents held a listening session on the draft policy to implement a bill that allows open and concealed carry in public places in Montana, including public campuses. The call included roughly two hours of public comment, and Regent Brianne Rogers said nearly 600 people had tuned into the meeting.

Rogers, chair of the Academic, Research and Student Affairs Committee, opened the meeting with word that the Board of Regents had already received substantial feedback on the Constitutional question raised in House Bill 102. The Constitution gives the Board of Regents full authority to supervise Montana University System campuses, but the legislation signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte strips their control over managing firearms.

Rogers said the Board would consider the Constitutional question separately and requested members of the public comment on the draft policy. Nonetheless, many people who spoke at the listening session demanded the regents litigate rather than cede their authority to the Montana Legislature lest lawmakers start dictating other areas of education.

“Are they going to pick classes? Teachers?” said Polly Kuglin, parent of a Montana State University student.

Just a handful of people spoke in support of the law that allows guns on campus, legislation which takes effect on campuses on June 1. The full Board of Regents takes up the policy at its May 26-27 meeting but members did not comment Wednesday.

A man who identified himself as an MSU employee and retired U.S. Air Force colonel was among the minority who asked the Board to move forward with its policy. (The people who spoke did not spell their names for the hearing.) He said he had lost friends in combat in order to protect the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms.

“Hot plates are not a Constitutional right,” he said.

Most other people pushed back against the implementation of the policy and “abysmal piece of legislation” for the safety of people on campus as well as members of the public attending music concerts, sporting events and even lectures on controversial and potentially volatile subjects. Opponents included employees or students from MSU, MSU-Billings, MSU-Northern the University of Montana in Missoula, UM Western, and the Bitterroot College.

Kathy Malone, widow of 10th MSU President Michael Malone, urged the Regents to remember the lessons of the past and reminded them of the tragedy when two students were shot in a dorm in Bozeman.

“I can’t begin to tell you how the grief encapsulated the whole campus,” Malone said.

Professionals who work in the medical field and suicide prevention also said the mix of guns on campus in a state with a persistently high rate of suicide and firearm fatalities would be lethal. Some parents said they were scared to send their students to college in Montana despite the great enthusiasm from their children for the state.

Sandy and Byron Murray called in from a camping trip to comment. Sandy Murray said they are parents to an MSU student who just finished her freshman year, and they are adoptive parents whose children are Asian.

She said their daughter was very aware of the lack of racial diversity at MSU, yet she fell in love with the school anyway. Now, she is worried about whether she will be safe given her ethnicity and the new law on guns, Murray said.

“She does want to return. She does love it. But she is now in a quandary, and I can’t believe she’s the only one,” said Murray, who also noted she and her husband both are military veterans and small arms qualified.

A student from Helena College, though, said most of their campus body is made of Montanans who are nontraditional students, and a survey showed there was some support for the law. Students are responsible and enjoy hunting and shooting, but she urged training.

“It’s not hard to forget that they have guns in the back of their vehicles after an outing,” she said. 

The draft policy notes how a person becomes certified to carry a weapon on campus, such as with proof of a concealed carry permit, and also exceptions to locations where firearms are allowed, such as preschools and high risk laboratories. The draft had elicited more than 1,500 comments in advance of the listening session.

Kristin Dahl Horejsi, mother of an MSU student and director of the Learning and Belonging Preschool at UM, said more than 100 students come through the school’s doors in a year as part of a learning lab. She was worried a frazzled student would forget to safely lock their gun and tuck it into a backpack, and she also said preschoolers aren’t limited to the classroom.

“Our preschool children explore the full campus on daily field trips, and most campus childcare playgrounds are exposed,” Dahl Horejsi said.

She said her family was considering a transfer for their son to an out-of-state college.

Many members of the public described the law as overreach by the Legislature and urged the Board to keep its current policy in place and go to court instead. Douglas Coffin, faculty member at UM, agreed the law clearly violated the Constitution in undercutting the obligations of the Board of Regents to govern campuses, but he also said the Regents’ policies state the people must have the opportunity for a safe and positive learning environment in Montana.

“There are contradictions at hand there,” Coffin said.

Canyon Lock, vice president of the Associated Students at the University of Montana, said if the Regents don’t challenge the law, it will be clear that political influence overrules the Board.

“What reason is there for the state of Montana to have a Board of Regents?” Lock said.

During the legislative session, at least one lawmaker, Democrat Sen. Diane Sands of Missoula, noted the bill would cost campuses millions of dollars to implement, but a fiscal note that estimated cost was never drafted, and Republican sponsor Rep. Seth Berglee of Joliet argued it wouldn’t cost schools. Instead, lawmakers pushed $1 million into the bill in a last minute amendment for the university system to implement a policy, a figure at least a couple people described Wednesday as a “bribe.”

“Don’t succumb to what I believe is an attempted bribe by some members of the legislature to keep you away from court,” said Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Helena Democrat.

Brad Hall, tribal outreach specialist at UM, said he was concerned for the safety of students and female employees, and he said the law was a step backward for institutions already dealing with systemic racism.

“I am concerned mainly because of the climate in the state of Montana regarding the emboldening of white supremacists and other groups who have really perpetrated a non-Indian agenda in the state Legislature, which has then perpetrated many other things,” Hall said.

Bryce Gill, resident director at MSU, said he was worried about the safety of the residence halls. The coronavirus pandemic put advisors in danger over the course of the last year.

“Please do not compromise their safety or make their job any more difficult than it already is,” Gill said.

Annie Belcourt, a UM faculty member and Native American, said her family has experienced gun violence and loss from suicide. She said she doesn’t want to fear for her life in her job and wants to work in a peaceful environment conducive to learning.

“I would very much like to have a safe work space where I don’t have to worry about being killed for being a person of color, for being a professor,” or for expressing a different opinion, Belcourt said. 

Jim Hogan, a retired Catholic priest, said he had served as director of Catholic ministry at UM, and he had seen even older students act out in anger and frustration and get hurt. He said the Legislature was trying to solve a problem Montana doesn’t have.

“I think the legislators are really out of touch with the students. Students come to campus, especially young students, emotionally immature,” Hogan said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.