Montana Judge Blocks Campus Carry Law

Don Petersen

When lawmakers in Montana approved permitless carry legislation earlier this year, they also ended the prohibition on lawful carrying of firearms on public college and university campuses throughout the state. That set up a conflict between the legislature and the university system’s board of regents, who claim that the Montana state constitution gives them the sole authority to set rules and regulations on all campuses. The regents sued, as did the Montana Federation of Public Employees, and back in June a state judge put a temporary hold on the implementation of campus carry while the legal arguments continued.

This week, however, that temporary injunction blocking the campus carry law from taking effect became permanent.

District Court Judge Michael McMahon on Tuesday granted the state Board of Regents’ request for a permanent injunction against legislation that sought to block the regents from regulating the possession or storage of firearms on campuses.

Montana’s Constitution gives the Board of Regents the authority to regulate the university system, and McMahon agreed with the board that their power includes setting campus firearms policies. He declared the part of the law dealing with the university system to be unconstitutional.

Attorney General Austin Knudsen quickly filed a notice with the Montana Supreme Court that his office intends to appeal McMahon’s ruling.

“We disagree with the judge’s decision. State law applies on college campuses,” Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson for Knudsen, said Wednesday. “The Board of Regents does not have the power to pick and choose which state laws it will follow. Montanans do not forfeit their constitutional rights when they step foot onto a college campus.”

We’ll see what the Montana Supreme Court has to say here, but it might not be a bad idea for Second Amendment supporters and Republican lawmakers to start the ball rolling on a constitutional amendment that would re-define the sweeping powers given to the board of regents under the current language, which states:

The government and control of the Montana university system is vested in a board of regents of higher education which shall have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system and shall supervise and coordinate other public educational institutions assigned by law.

Montana’s constitution can be amended via a citizens’ initiative, which requires petitioners to collect signatures from at least 10% of registered voters in the state, including at least 10% of qualified voters in 40 of the state’s 100 legislative districts. That’s not a particularly high bar to clear, particularly in a Second Amendment-friendly state like Montana. And just last year we saw a pro-gun control ballot referendum in the state that would have given local authorities the power to regulate concealed carry fail by a 49-51 margin.

Now, I’m not exactly fluent in legislatese, but it seems to me that writing up an amendment that makes it clear the legislature, and not unelected boards, have the power to regulate the gun laws on university campuses would be a fairly simple process.

If the state Supreme Court overturns the decision by the district court judge, then all this is a moot point. But if the justices declare that the state constitution really does give “full power” to the board of regents, it’s going to take a constitutional amendment to set things right, and I’d argue that it’s better to get a jump on collecting signatures instead of waiting to see what the Montana Supreme Court has to say.