HELENA — A Montana House committee held its first hearing Wednesday on a bill that would expand where and how people can carry weapons, including on college campuses.
The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 102, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee of Joliet. Berglee said the bill was aimed at limiting “gun-free zones,” saying those restrictions weren’t keeping people safe.
“It has no force against somebody who seeks to do wrong; it’s only inhibiting the people that are law-abiding, that have the ability and the right to defend themselves and others from harm,” he said.
Berglee said he saw the bill as a next step, after Montana voters approved Legislative Referendum 130 last year. The ballot measure limited local governments’ ability to regulate firearms.
HB 102 would make a number of changes to state gun law. It would allow people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit in most places. Those with concealed weapons permits would be allowed to carry in some additional areas, including state and local government offices and restaurants or other places where alcohol is sold.
The bill would provide some exceptions, allowing firearms to be restricted in detention centers and federal facilities, and giving private property owners the ability to specifically prohibit firearms.
Berglee said Montana already allows people to openly carry in most of these areas, and HB 102 would bring concealed carry laws into alignment.
“From a safety standpoint and from the standpoint of self-defense, carrying a concealed weapon is going to be more palatable for a lot of people,” he said.
HB 102 would also limit the Montana University System Board of Regents’ ability to regulate firearms on college campuses. It specifically prohibits MUS employees from “enforcing or coercing compliance with any rule or regulation that diminishes or restricts the rights of the people to keep or bear arms.”
The bill would give campuses the ability to put some limits on guns. For example, they could require guns be kept in a holster when outside a student’s residence, and they could prohibit guns at events where alcohol is being served.
HB 102 drew support from gun-rights advocates and from some Montana law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who said he felt uncomfortable when unable to carry a gun as a law student at the University of Montana.
Jesse Slaughter, the sheriff of Cascade County, said he supported giving law-abiding people the ability to carry guns in more places.
“One of the things we go after the most are felons in possession of firearms, and we arrest and we indict multiple of them,” he said. “I’m going to tell you this: We haven’t run into one yet carrying a concealed weapons permit.”
Opponents raised several concerns, particularly around the provisions involving the university system.
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education, said other states that have allowed guns on campus have put in more restrictions than HB 102 would create. He said those states’ experiences showed the bill wasn’t necessary.
“There are substantially more instances of accidental shootings, misfires and other dangerous mishaps with guns than there are of guns being the reasonable solution to any problems on campus,” he said.
Another opponent was Quint Nyman, deputy executive director of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents many university employees. Nyman said existing security on campus is sufficient. He noted that, even in places like military installations, personal weapons are not allowed.
“Colleges are simply not equipped to provide that same level of safety for employees or students,” he said.
Republican Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he expected the committee to take executive action on HB 102 next Monday.