HELENA — On a party-line vote with Republicans in favor, the Montana House Wednesday endorsed a bill that would allow students and other private citizens to possess or carry firearms on Montana’s college campuses.
The bill, if it becomes law, would undo the state Board of Regents’ current ban on firearms on Montana state college and university campuses.
The House endorsed House Bill 102 on a 67-33 vote, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against it. After a final vote on Thursday, the bills heads to the Senate.
The measure not only allows firearms on college campuses, but also says anyone with a concealed-weapon permit can carry a weapon anywhere it’s not expressly prohibited in law – and outlined those exceptions.
The exceptions include prisons or other secure state facilities, federally owned buildings, military bases, courtrooms and schools, as determined by the local school board.
Private property owners and businesses also can ban firearms on their property.
Supporters of the bill said it’s meant to enhance the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the sponsor of HB102, recalled the 2007 mass shooting of students and faculty on the Virginia Tech campus, and said if someone else had had a weapon, the shooter could have been deterred.
“The reality of a good guy with a gun stopping an attack is a thing,” he said. “I would challenge any member of this body to find me a mass shooting where the shooter was engaged by an individual with a firearm and then continued on to kill multiple people. It doesn’t exist.”
Other supporters argued that allowing guns on campuses would enable young women to protect themselves from “predators” who want to attack them.
“This bill, to me, is not about those times when police officers are there,” said Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, a former police chief. “It’s about when they’re not. … Criminals, be warned – that’s what we’re doing here today. We’re empowering the people of Montana.”
Yet opponents said allowing guns on campus is making the college less safe for faculty, staff and students – including those who might turn the guns on themselves.
“Increasing guns on our campuses will only cause more deaths, not less,” said Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman. “More suffering families, not less – more fears for faculty, staff and law enforcement, not less.”
The debate also featured an unusual exchange on the floor, when Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, asked if anyone on the floor had suffered a gunshot wound, and began telling a story about how he had.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who was chairing the debate, ruled Keane out of order, saying the question violated decorum and wasn’t pertinent to the bill. Democrats challenged the ruling and the full House upheld Skees on a 56-41 vote.
Keane later rose to say it was unfair for Skees to deny how he wanted to state his position on the bill – and then said he would oppose it, because he knew what damage a gunshot wound would cause, and that the bill would increase firearm incidents.
“So when those issues come up and those things happen, who holds us accountable for those things?” Keane asked. “No one … Because the bill is a dangerous precedent, and we’ll probably see more of them this session. It’s a thing we don’t want to do.”