A House bill that would allow concealed carry on university campuses is a step closer to passage after receiving an initial vote of approval in front of the full chamber.
The discussion and the 67-33 vote was along party lines, with Republicans speaking in favor of expanding concealed carry and Democrats opposing to it over safety and constitutionality concerns.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, said the bill would expand where Montanans can carry firearms with a valid concealed carry permit in an effort to provide for personal security and safety. Berglee, who sponsored the bill, said gun-free areas only stop law-abiding citizens from carrying, not people determined to break the law.
Firearms advocacy groups have voiced support for the bill, including the National Association on Gun Rights and Montana Shooting Sports Association. Attorney General Austin Knudsen also spoke in support of the bill on Jan. 5.
House Bill 102 would expand state gun law, allowing people with a concealed firearm permit to carry in restaurants and other places where alcohol is sold and in state and local government offices, including college campuses overseen by the Montana Board of Regents.
The bill would limit the Board of Regents’ regulation of firearms on its campuses. It states university system employees are prohibited from “enforcing or coercing compliance with any rule or regulation that diminishes or restricts the rights of the people to keep or bear arms.”
Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, spoke out against the bill, saying he took an oath to support the state constitution last week, which gives the Board of Regents the full authority and power to control its campuses.
“This bill plainly oversteps our constitutional authority,” he said.
Stafman said it not only strips the Board of Regents of their authority, but it is also dangerous. He said Montana State University faculty and staff were worried, and local law enforcement were concerned over the addition of guns to campuses.
He also spoke about the possibility of increased suicides if guns on college campuses were easier to access.
“Increasing guns on our campuses will only cause more deaths, not less,” he said.
Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, spoke about his law enforcement background and said the bill was not about the times when police officers are there.
“It’s about when they’re not. This is about empowering people out there, the law abiding citizens to be able to take care of themselves and support themselves,” he said.
During the floor discussion, Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, began to tell a story of being personally injured by a gun, after asking Berglee if he had “ever suffered a gunshot wound.”
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who was chairing the House floor session, told Keane he could not tell his personal story because it was not relevant to the bill’s discussion. House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott challenged the ruling, saying Republican members had told personal stories and was a common part of bill discussions.
Ultimately, a vote was held and Keane was told not to continue with his personal story.
Keane called the bill “a dangerous precedent” and said “someone will die or get irreparably harmed just like I have.”
Opponents to the bill have questioned the constitutionality of it. In a legal note attached to the bill, the Legislative Services Division says the drafted bill “may raise potential constitutional conformity issues associated with… the Montana Constitution.”
The constitution states a board of regents shall “have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system.”
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education, said earlier that the university system’s opposition to the bill is based on student safety, facility management during events, student mental wellness and suicide prevention.
Montana Federation of Public Employees, a union representing over 20,000 public employees including university and police, is opposed to the bill.
Amanda Curtis, president of MFPE, previously said it was a safety concern for many university employees and police officers who are worried about more gun incidents on campuses.
The bill will have a final vote in front of the full House of Representatives on Thursday before moving to the Senate, where Republicans also have a majority.
After it clears the Senate, the bill would go to the Governor’s desk.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office said, “A strong defender of the second amendment-protected rights of law-abiding gun owners, Governor Gianforte will carefully review any bill the legislature sends to his desk.”