HELENA, Mont — A new bill under consideration in the Montana House would relax restrictions on guns in the state by allowing concealed carrying of firearms on college campuses.
Republicans, who hold majorities in the state House and Senate, have prioritized the measure amid renewed hope it will be signed into law this year with a GOP governor in office for the first time in 16 years.
Numerous bills to relax gun regulations in Montana have been vetoed by Democratic governors in the past decade.
The latest measure would make the state safer by doing away with “gun free zones,” Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings, argued Wednesday during a hearing on the measure. Usher is chair of the judiciary committee.
“When you have an evil shooter, they will prey on places where they know there are no guns or guns are not allowed, because people that want to do bad things with guns don’t adhere to the law anyway,” Usher said. “If everybody knows college campuses are gun free zones, then that’s just an open target.”
Opponents of the bill, which include the state’s university system, said it would jeopardize the safety of students and faculty and would risk increasing the suicide rate, already one of the highest in the nation.
If the legislation passes, Montana would join several other states that permit the carrying of concealed weapons at public colleges, including Utah and Colorado.
Dylan Yonce, a sophomore at the University of Montana, hopes that doesn’t happen. She said she feels safer knowing that students are not able to have weapons at schools.
“Any legislation that would remove that protection would lead me to limit my time on campus out of concern for my own safety,” she said.
In addition to allowing concealed carry on campuses, the bill would allow concealed carry without a permit in most places and expand the sites where concealed carry is allowed for permit holders to include places such as banks and the Capitol.
A similar proposal that would have permitted concealed carry on campuses failed to pass in 2015, when the Montana House rejected it in a 51-49 vote.
But Republican state House Speaker Wylie Galt said he thinks the new bill has wide support from the Republican caucus and could be signed into law by new Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte if passed.
“It’s been a priority in past sessions as well. I just believe our chances of getting it signed are way greater than in previous sessions,” Galt said.
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican elected in November, said the state’s Department of Justice supports the bill.
“Montana voters have spoken,” he said, referencing the overwhelming victories of Republicans in all statewide races. “This is a very clear mandate from the voters of Montana that they support exactly this kind of legislation.”
One concern with the proposal is that it could lead to an increase in suicides, according to gun control advocates. A report from the group Everytown for Gun Safety states that 86 percent of gun deaths in Montana are suicides.
“Statistically, your odds of being a victim of a crime go down when you set foot on a college or university campus,” said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education. “But we also know health and wellness risks go up when people have easier access to a means of self-harm.”
In 2006, the Utah Supreme Court struck down a ban on guns at the University of Utah, saying campus officials cannot adopt a policy that runs counter to state law. In 2012, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of opponents of a campus gun ban who claimed the prohibition was illegal because it was not approved by the Legislature.
A legal review of the new Montana bill prepared by the state’s code commissioner stated that the bill may be in conflict with the state’s constitution, which gives the Montana University System Board of Regents power to govern the state’s universities. The bill sponsor, Rep. Seth Berglee, a Republican, said in response that the state constitution doesn’t give regents the right to override the Second Amendment.
“People don’t lose those fundamental constitutional rights when they go on campus,” Berglee said.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.