While most of the country is still affected by shootings in Boulder and Atlanta this month, universities in Montana are preparing to allow guns on their campus.
In February, the newly elected Republican Governor of Montana, Greg Gianforte, signed a bill that indeed allows the state's college campus to continue openly and covertly. The new law officially allows guns in public places and deprives the Montana University System and its Board of Regents of their ability to regulate gun ownership.
The systems office and board of directors opposed the bill, and while they couldn't kill it, they successfully advocated some adjustments. One of these is that universities can continue to ban guns at major sporting and entertainment events where the security on site is armed. On the other hand, the law will only come into force on the campus on June 1st. This means that they only have a few months to prepare.
"We don't know what June 1st looks like," said Brock Tessman, assistant commissioner for academic, research and student affairs. The Board of Regents is considering options, including challenging the law in court, but the state office of the Commissioner for Higher Education is also working on a plan to implement it. The board of directors will vote on this plan in May.
"We are starting to identify the particularly challenging aspects," said Tessman. These include how the law works in dormitories, the requirements for those who want to carry a firearm on campus rather than just keep it in their dormitory, and how the university will enforce policy violations.
Last week the State House of Representatives approved a $ 1 million budget to help the university system implement the law. The money will help fund training for firearms, metal detectors, gun safes in dormitories, and awareness campaigns. However, the university system does not receive funding if it challenges the law in court.
There has been a lot of shootings on the college campus for decades including one at Umpqua Community College in 2015, in which 10 people died. The deadliest thing was at Virginia Tech 2007 when a shooter killed 32 people. Tessman said Montanas high suicide rate is of particular concern to officials who are concerned that this bill will undermine university suicide efforts.
"We've been in a big fight on this front for a few years," he said, adding that Montana has one of the worst per capita suicide rates compared to any other state. "That applies to our locations."
Taylor Gregory, president of the student government at the University of Montana in Missoula, said most of the students he is in contact with are concerned about the new law.
"There are probably students who are in favor," he said. "I haven't interacted with a student who advocates the open-carry aspect."
Gregory is part of a working group at the University of Montana trying to figure out how to implement the policy once the Board of Regents approves it. Part of the group's work was reviewing guidelines at universities in other states that allow guns on campus. Gregory said he had checked out states like Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, but that only made him more concerned. Even these states seem to have more restrictions than what's coming for Montana.
"Montana is now the loosest or up there in terms of campus carry in the country," he said. "In this environment you have to think that anyone can be armed at any time."
Gregory said there are still many unknowns. How will RA training be changed to reflect the new gun rules? How does the university-wide student orientation have to change? According to the law, people are not allowed to remove weapons from a suitcase or holster unless this is done for self-defense or in a person's "residence". But what counts as "residence"? A student room or the entire dormitory building?
University apartments are particularly complicated. Students must specifically give their roommates permission to keep firearms in their rooms, Tessman said. This means gun ownership must be taken into account when completing residential assignments.
Danielle Pease, a freshman in the University of Montana law school and founder of a nonprofit committed to helping sexual assault survivors, said she was concerned about the safety of women on campus and pointed out the high proportion of female murders associated with intimate partner violence. She said she was also concerned about how little time the university system had to implement this law.
"There was just one kind over our heads," she said. "Now it feels like it's finally getting real."