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New gun carry law has campus officials pondering

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    Missoula, Montana (Missoulian) — The implications of Montana’s new constitutional-carry gun law will take some time to settle out on the state’s college campuses.

“There are two things we know,” Montana University System Deputy Commissioner Kevin McRae said on Friday. “First, the Board of Regents’ May meeting will have a lot of decisions to make regarding firearms policy. And second, the regents and the U system will stay committed to keeping our campuses safe places for students and staff and the public to teach and learn and grow and thrive.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 102 on Thursday, which allows law-abiding gun owners to carry concealed firearms for self-protection without written authorization from the government. The law takes away the ability of local governments to restrict open or concealed carrying of firearms except in places like government offices or other secure areas. It gives private property owners the ability to prohibit carrying guns on their grounds.

And it requires the Montana University System to drop its restrictions on campus carry by June 1.

McRae said the regents and Commissioner of Higher Education staff are researching how best to adapt to the new law. There are no current plans to attempt to block it.

“We’re not talking about litigation — we’re getting asked about it,” McRae said on Friday. His staff is looking at how other state university systems, especially in the Rocky Mountain West, have developed their campus-carry policies.

At the moment, University of Montana residential students are required to store their pistols and rifles in a secure room at the UM Campus Police Office. Only campus police are allowed to openly carry firearms on university grounds, including the Missoula College River Campus and its agricultural facility across from Big Sky High School.

That secure locker not only has student firearms, but other weapons such as archery gear and hatchets that aren’t allowed in residence halls. A current inventory of guns was not available on Friday, although campus police said it would be atypical because pandemic restrictions have drastically reduced the numbers of students living in dorms this academic year.

Among the few students walking around on Friday afternoon, the new gun law didn’t appear to be much of an issue.

“I grew up in a really small town and I knew a lot of people with concealed carry permits,” said psychology major Eleasha Zitzelberger of Salem, Oregon. “I feel college students won’t go out of their way to do that.”

English education major Rowan Crabtree of Kalispell said she didn’t recall the gun law being much of a conversation issue on campus while it was debated in the Legislature.

“In my social circles, I don’t hear anyone expressing the need for more guns,” Crabtree said. “I’d rather be able to see them than it be all concealed-carry.”

The new law may also sweep away the remaining “gun-free school zone” rules around elementary and high schools in the state. While those policies stem from federal gun control laws, firearms lobbyist Gary Marbut said Montana state law has essentially negated those by allowing any law-abiding gun owner to be considered licensed by the state, which he said means the 1,000-foot exclusion zone around schools is effectively meaningless.

“We’ve had permit-less carry since 1991,” Marbut said. “You haven’t needed government permission to put on a coat when wearing a gun since then.”

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