HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A bill that would expand the list of places in Montana where people can carry concealed firearms with and without permits passed Thursday in the Republican-controlled House, less than two weeks after the Legislature started its session.
Under existing law, concealed firearms are only allowed without permits in Montana outside of city limits. The bill would allow them to be carried without permits, including in the Montana Capitol, state and local government buildings and on public university campuses.
The Montana university system Board of Regents has a rule banning people from carrying firearms. But the bill's proponents said the rule infringes on the Second Amendment rights of university students, faculty and staff.
Under the bill, the only places where carrying concealed firearms would not be allowed are correctional or detention centers, beyond security checkpoints at commercial airports, in federal buildings, on military bases or on private property if the owners prohibit firearms.
Republican lawmakers prioritized the bill after the state elected its first Republican governor in 16 years in November. Similar gun bills have passed votes by the Republican-controlled Legislature in previous years, only to be vetoed by Democratic governors.
In a vote down party lines, 66 Republicans voted in favor of the bill and 31 Democrats were opposed. Three House members did not vote. The bill now proceeds to the Montana Senate.
Gov. Greg Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke did not respond to an email requesting comment on whether the governor would sign the bill if it reached his desk.
Proponents of the bill have said that getting rid of so-called “gun-free zones” would allow law-abiding citizens to defend themselves. Opponents have cited research showing that the presence of guns could make some places, including university campuses, less safe.
Rep. Braxton Mitchell, a 20-year-old Republican from Columbia Falls, said during a House hearing on Wednesday that the bill would “benefit minorities who have been victims of violence.”
“This legislation will have the most impact on college-age women, who have finally been given the right to defend themselves,” Mitchell said.
But Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Center group that lobbies for gun control measures, said the bill could increase gun violence in a state that already has one of the highest rates of gun deaths per capita in the country.
Allowing people to carry concealed firearms on college and university campuses — where rates of mental illness and substance abuse are high — would amount to bringing “a tinder box near an open flame,” she said.
“Generally, weaker gun laws and more guns lead to more shootings. So by having guns on campuses, there’s no reason to believe that general rule wouldn’t apply,” Anderman 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.