HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has ruled the Board of Regents, not the State Legislature, has the sole right to set policy regarding the possession of firearms on the Montana University System property.
House Bill 102, passed by the Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last year, made a number of changes expanding where and how someone can carry a gun. One of its provisions said MUS could not “regulate, restrict, or place an undue burden on the possession, transportation, or storage of firearms” by someone who had met safety and training requirements.”
In December, a Helena District Judge Mike McMahon declared HB 102 unconstitutionally infringed on the regents’ authority to manage the Montana University System. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s Office appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
The state's high court held unanimously that the Montana Constitution specifically provides that government and control of the university system is vested in the Board of Regents, and that campus safety and security is an integral responsibility of the Board of Regents’ constitutional authority.
Justice Laurie McKinnon said in her opinion, “Thus, maintaining a safe and secure educational environment falls squarely within the Board’s constitutional authority…”
The ruling declares the portion of House Bill 102 dealing with campus firearm policy as unconstitutional.
The Board of Regents currently has a policy that bans firearm possession on state campuses, except by trained law enforcement or security officers.
MUS told MTN in a statement that they appreciate the clarity this ruling establishes.
The MUS appreciates the clarity provided by the Montana Supreme Court. From the outset, the Board of Regents sought judicial review of HB 102 to determine the appropriate entity for setting policy for the state's public colleges and universities. The Board of Regents values its strong partnership with the Legislature and will continue to work on shared goals and priorities to strengthen the state's economy and provide world-class educational opportunities to Montanans.
Representative Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the sponsor of House Bill 102, in a statement quested the ruling and described it as "the most pro-government, anti-freedom ruling" he'd seen.
This is a dangerous, slippery slope decision from the Montana Supreme Court. The justices have decided that a group of unelected bureaucrats can use their own judgment to determine the scope of your constitutional rights on college campuses, all without oversight by the people or their elected representatives. Our constitution states that keeping or bearing arms “shall not be called into question.” If the Board of Regents can restrict this right, what's to stop them from restricting free speech, due process, voting, or executing warrantless searches and seizures on university property? That unelected Board of Regents members can unilaterally limit constitutional rights should concern all Montanans. This is the most pro-government, anti-freedom ruling I've seen from the Montana Supreme Court in a long time.
Montana Department of Justice Communications Director Kyler Nerison blasted the ruling on Wednesday, saying it did not improve security on campuses.
House Bill 102 was an historic expansion of Montanans’ rights and their ability to defend themselves. As the court notes in its opinion, being sheltered within a “gun-free zone” hasn’t prevented students from being murdered on university campuses in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court’s decision today relegates university students and employees to second-class citizens, putting their rights and safety at the whims of an unelected governmental body that now has veto power over state laws it disagrees with.
The Montana Board of Regents consists of seven members appointed by the Governor, and confirmed by the Montana Senate, to seven year overlapping terms.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with comments from MUS, the Montana DOJ and Representative Seth Berglee.