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Idaho college leaders oppose guns-on-campus bill, but lawmakers press on anyway

Don Soltman, left, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, joins all eight of Idaho's public college and university presidents Monday to speak out "emphatically" against SB 1254, which would allow concealed guns on Idaho public college campuses. (Betsy Russell)
Don Soltman, left, president of the Idaho State Board of Education, joins all eight of Idaho's public college and university presidents Monday to speak out "emphatically" against SB 1254, which would allow concealed guns on Idaho public college campuses. (Betsy Russell)
BOISE – Idaho’s state Board of Education and all eight of its public college and university presidents came out unanimously and emphatically against a new guns-on-campus bill Monday, but lawmakers are pressing forward anyway, and the bill now appears likely to pass. “I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t think it had the votes to get through the committee and the rest of the process,” said Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, lead sponsor of the bill and the chairman of the Senate State Affairs Committee, where SB 1254 was introduced. McKenzie said he’ll hold a full hearing on the bill on Feb. 12, and after two hours of testimony, the committee will vote on whether to forward it to the full Senate. In 2011, similar legislation passed the House on a 41-28 vote before dying in the same Senate committee. It went even further, eliminating any authority for state colleges or universities to regulate guns on campus in any manner, except for in dorms. This year’s bill would allow retired law enforcement officers and people with Idaho’s enhanced concealed-carry permit to bring firearms to campus. It would forbid guns from dormitories and large arenas or meeting rooms seating more than 1,000. Idaho college presidents not only spoke out against the bill, several vowed to testify against it when it comes up for a hearing. Joe Dunlap, president of North Idaho College, said, “The colleges of Idaho currently have longstanding, locally developed policies that do not allow guns on campus.” He called the bill “a litmus test for local control,” saying the authority of colleges to regulate guns on their campuses shouldn’t be pre-empted by state law; that’s specific feature of SB 1254. University of Idaho President Don Burnett said research “does not demonstrate that safety would be enhanced by increasing the number of weapons on college campuses.” He said, “Moreover, many law enforcement experts are concerned that a proliferation of firearms will make response by law enforcement authorities in crisis situations more complicated and ultimately more dangerous.” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who supports the bill, said he can’t understand the college presidents’ opposition. “It seems that it only makes the campuses safer,” Barbieri said. “The idea that a predator knows that there’s no way a person can lawfully carry on campus, gives them an open field.” McKenzie said, “I understand their desire to control what happens on campus, but that decision weighs less in my mind than the constitutional right of Idaho citizens to protect themselves when they are on publicly owned land. … I believe this is a good bill that protects the liberty interests of Idaho citizens.” He noted that other states have authorized guns on campus, including neighboring Utah and Oregon. College of Southern Idaho President Jeff Fox said his board and faculty senate polled students on the issue in 2011. “It was virtually unanimous … against guns on campus,” he said. Burnett said, “I think you’ll find in most student bodies that there’s divided opinions. At the University of Idaho, the student leadership has informed us they prefer to keep the decision-making where it is with respect to guns on campus.” McKenzie said he’s worked with several other lawmakers on the bill, and with the Idaho liaison for the National Rifle Association. “I think this is a fundamental interest of Idaho citizens,” he said. Idaho currently allows university leaders to set policies on such matters. Guns aren’t allowed on campus at any of the state’s public colleges or universities.
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