by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe (D-Great Falls)
When I was teaching school, I used to insist that students do their homework. Don’t read parts and then tell me what the book means, I’d tell them. Don’t write a skeletal essay and tell me you’ve thoroughly explored the topic.
When it comes to SB 143, the “campus carry” bill, supporters’ comments show they haven’t done their homework.
“Our constitution gives the regents broad authority,” the bill’s sponsor says, “but it doesn’t give them the authority to interfere with our Second Amendment rights.”
Actually, Montana’s constitution is quite clear on the regents’ authority: it’s not “broad” or “general,” as the sponsor likes to say. It’s “full” — as in “total,” “complete.”
Don’t believe me? Do your homework. The transcripts of the 1972 Constitutional Convention leave no doubt why the delegates chose the word “full.” After decades of watching Montana legislatures interfere with the management, employees, and curriculum on university campuses, the delegates wanted to erect a constitutional firewall between the regents and the legislature. In court challenges since, that firewall has stood.
But does the regents’ full authority to manage the university system allow them to ignore our Constitutional rights? Of course not. But, again, do your homework. The United States Supreme Court, not the Montana legislature, clarifies the Bill of Rights. As SB 143 notes, in the Court’s Heller decision, Justice Scalia and his majority held that individuals have a Second Amendment right to keep and bear firearms in self-defense. But as SB 143 does not note, Scalia qualified that right:
[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings ….
Justice Scalia went out of his way in a decision that vastly expanded the Court’s previous rulings limiting Second Amendment freedoms to instruct us that those freedoms always have been and should continue to be limited under certain conditions. One of those conditions is the existence of “sensitive places.”
The question for the regents, therefore, is this: Are college campuses sensitive places with respect to the presence of firearms? No doubt the following factors would come into play in making that decision: the immaturity and inexperience of the majority of the traditional college population … the cramped, often interchangeable and easily transgressed living quarters in the dorms … the difficulty many students experience when transitioning from a close-knit, supervised family setting to the broader, less familiar nucleus of campus life … the stress and expense of the academic environment … the hugely higher incidence of alcohol abuse … the facts that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for this age group and 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm are successful … the fact that, in the event of a campus shooting, law enforcement officers may end up shooting armed students, on hand to provide “friendly fire.” That’s just for starters.
Montana’s board of regents decided college campuses were sensitive places long before that phrase became a term of art in Heller. In 1990 a freshman student at MSU, away from home for the first time, having trouble adjusting to the new environment, and having been taunted by a couple of peers in the dorm, came home from a night of drinking and decided to retaliate against his tormenters. Firearm in tow, he burst into a dorm room and shot two students to death in their sleep. As it turned out, they weren’t the students who had messed with him. He got the wrong room. But the two students are still dead and the former freshman is still in prison. The regents enacted their restrictions on firearms on campus sometime after that incident. There hasn’t been a shooting on a Montana University System campus since.
It isn’t the glossing over of constitutional intent or the selective reading of Heller that bothers me about the way SB 143 is wending its way through the legislature. It’s the failure to use the appropriate venue to advance this issue.
The legislature is not the appropriate body to “clarify the role of the board of regents,” which SB 143 avows is its main purpose. Clarifying what our constitution means is the role of our courts. And the legislature is not the appropriate body to determine whether, when and where college students can bring guns on campus. The appropriate body is the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education.
Maybe the regents should reverse the campus firearms policy in the wake of Heller. (I don’t think so, but I’m not a regent.) Maybe the regents should make changes on our campuses that make it easier for students who want to go hunting early in the morning to get their rifles earlier, in order to address the complaint of the one college student at the Senate hearing. (Makes sense to me, but I’m not a regent.) Maybe the regents should make exceptions with respect to married student housing residents in certain neighborhoods, in response to the complaint of the one teaching assistant at the Senate hearing. (I’d like to delve into that, but no need: I’m not a regent.)
The cardinal rule of all homework assignments is this: Follow the directions. None of the proponents of SB 143 or the legislators supporting it have followed the directions our constitution lays out for all of us. They haven’t gone to the board of regents with their concerns. And that’s where they should start. If they aren’t satisfied with the board’s response, they can turn to the courts, and their cause will be unencumbered by the toss-it-out firewall breach SB 143 provides, courtesy of the Montana legislature. A much easier assignment.
Sen. Moe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you email her, thank her for being one of the great ones! You can read more about her priorities and values on the Great Falls Tribune here.