The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Monday that would prohibit the Montana Board of Regents and the Montana University System from regulating the carrying of firearms on college campuses across the state.

House Bill 102, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, passed on a party-line vote following lengthy debate on several amendments. According to its final version, the bill’s primary intent is to reduce legal restrictions governing open and concealed carry that limit Montanans’ ability to defend themselves. 

“I think it is the right of the Legislature to ensure that people have the right to defend themselves, and not removing a right from the people of Montana and the students that attend Montana State University or the University of Montana or any of the other colleges to protect themselves,” Berglee said during discussion on the measure. “It has been shown over and over and over again, and I would challenge any member of this body to find me a situation where a mass shooter has been engaged by an armed individual and then has gone on to kill multiple more people. It doesn’t exist.” 

During its initial hearing on Jan. 6, Berglee noted that the goal of HB 102 is to address some of the legislative “clean-up” covered under Legislative Referendum 130, which 51% of Montana voters approved on the 2020 ballot. That measure revoked the authority of local governments to adopt or enforce their own regulations limiting concealed carry.

Several firearms advocacy groups including the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the National Association on Gun Rights rallied in favor of HB 102 last week. Among the opponents was Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education Kevin McRae, who noted that schools such as Idaho State University and Colorado State University that have experimented with guns on campus have subsequently experienced incidents of accidental shootings and misfirings. McRae stood against the bill not only out of concern for student safety, he said, but also for student wellness.

“I am in no way, I am not saying that gun owners or gun carriers have any higher rates of clinical depression or other mental illness than the population at large. Not at all,” McRae said. “But I am saying this: numerous studies show that suicide rates go up in relation to the proximity or ease of access that people have to guns or other implements of self-harm.”

Other arguments made against the bill last week were that it puts public employees at an increased risk of potential harm, and runs counter to the Montana Constitution by infringing on the Montana Board of Regents’ authority over college campuses. Overall, HB 102 has been characterized by some as a major expansion of concealed carry in Montana. Berglee countered such statements prior to the committee’s vote Monday, reiterating that his aim is not to expand gun rights, but to allow individuals on campuses to carry firearms within the bounds of existing state law.

“The idea is not that we’re introducing guns to campus,” Berglee said. “It’s that we’re giving people a legal avenue to do so.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...