February 8, 2018 10:46:53 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
A bill the Mississippi House passed Wednesday to expand where enhanced concealed carry permit holders can take firearms has university leaders across the state worried.
House Bill 1083, which passed by an 81-29 vote Wednesday, seeks to clarify the 2011 concealed carry law already on the books to allow those permits holders to have guns on "any public property or portion of public property" -- even places where they aren't currently allowed.
That not only means courtrooms. It also would apply to all buildings on public university campuses -- such as residence halls, classrooms and sports venues.
Under the House bill, civilians would still not be allowed to bring guns into courtrooms where proceedings are in session.
To become law, the Senate must also approve the bill and the governor must sign it.
District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus), who voted in favor, said the clarification is meant to protect the Second Amendment rights of enhanced concealed carry permit holders and disallow what he believes have been unconstitutional exemptions to the 2011 law.
"If you have enhanced carry, you can," he said. "That does include athletic events.
"We feel like it's infringing upon our Second Amendment rights when you -- meaning the university -- say you can't do something that, if the law is passed and signed by the governor, is the law of the state of Mississippi," he said. "Even the state constitution says on any type of concealed carry, the Legislature is the one who decides it. We have decided it and, you know, we're certainly in conflict with a university that says you can't do what the Legislature has passed."
Chism said the bill, if it becomes law, would only apply to enhanced carry permit holders -- who must be at least 21 and complete a training course from a certified instructor. Citizens observing Constitutional concealed carry, which does not require a permit, would still face restrictions.
HB 1083 also includes a provision allowing a permit holder to sue any agency, entity or person who bars them from carrying their firearm. The suit would be filed in the circuit court that has jurisdiction over the location in question.
Chism said the provision is to provide a solution for instances where someone is stopped from carrying their firearm.
"We've passed this bill (in 2011)," he said. "It was unambiguous when we passed it. We've had attorney general opinions on it and there's still a persistence to thumb the nose at what we said in the bill for the enhanced carry legislation. This gives you recourse if somebody stops you."
Mississippi State University president Mark Keenum, in a statement issued Wednesday after HB 1083 made it through the House, expressed concern about the bill -- particularly that it may allow firearms into classrooms and residence halls.
In the statement, Keenum noted the board of trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning has, in recent years, already adopted policies to allow concealed weapons into public venues on campus, but not non-public ones, such as classrooms.
"We have great concerns about the prospect of a broad expansion of the existing IHL policies regarding firearms being brought onto campus because of the increased risk it would pose for every member of our campus community," Keenum said.
"I believe that a majority of the parents of the outstanding young people we are entrusted with educating and nurturing share my concerns about the passage of this bill and with it the introduction of firearms into our classrooms and our residence halls," he added.
A letter from Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, included with Keenum's statement in an email from MSU's Office of Public Affairs, also raises concerns about firearms at athletic events at MSU and the University of Mississippi. The letter requests an exemption for athletic events and sporting venues from HB 1083.
"If HB 1083 is adopted to permit weapons in college sports venues, it is likely that competitors will decline opportunities to play in Oxford and Starkville, game officials will decline assignments, personal safety concerns will be used against Mississippi's universities during the recruiting process and fan attendance will be negatively impacted," Sankey said.
Sankey also referenced similar laws that generated concern from other SEC institutions, such as one in Arkansas last year that would have allowed weapons into college sporting venues. Pressure from the state's universities and the SEC prompted lawmakers in Arkansas to carve out an exemption for college athletic events.
University of Mississippi Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter raised similar concerns to Keenum's in his own statement.
"(Wednesday), the Mississippi House of Representatives approved House Bill 1083, which, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, would override the IHL policy and our university's specific policies," Vitter said. "It would put our campus community, law enforcement, and first responders at great risk by allowing weapons in sensitive places such as classrooms, hospitals, clinics, and athletic and performance venues."
Mississippi University for Women President Jim Borsig also expressed opposition to the bill in an issued statement.
"The safety of our students, faculty, staff and visitors is of utmost importance to The W. Allowing weapons in sensitive places such as classrooms, disciplinary hearings, counseling centers, residence halls and athletic and performance venues would put our university community, law enforcement and first responders at risk," he said.
Glenn Boyce, Commissioner of Higher Learning, also said the bill would hinder the Institution of Higher Learning's ability to set policy to control where firearms are allowed on campuses.
"The safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors on our university campuses is a top priority for the Board of Trustees and university leaders," Boyce said. "HB 1083 compromises our ability to protect and ensure the safety of those on our campuses because it nullifies and prohibits any policies and/or authority to designate sensitive areas of campus where weapons should not be allowed."
The Dispatch also reached out to East Mississippi Community College did not receive comments by press time.
District 38 Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville), who voted against HB 1083, said he's strongly against it, especially with regards to allowing firearms in more areas on campuses such as athletic events.
"I'm 100 percent against this bill," Taylor said. "I understand Second Amendment rights. I think we've done a great job maintaining Second Amendment rights.
"This is a bad deal when it comes to public places where families and children are present," he added. "These are already charged environments where fights have happened. Having firearms does nothing to help that."
District 43 Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville) said he was absent from Wednesday's vote, but he would have opposed it. He said university concerns about guns at sporting venues is a "legitimate concern."
"I think there are certain places in this world that should be a little more controlled when we are dealing with where guns should be," he said. "If we're talking about leaving guns in vehicles on campus, I have no problem with that.
"I don't think having a weapon walking into a football stadium or a basketball stadium is necessarily a place we need to go, especially if there's a good support staff for policing," he added.
Roberson said he's "very pro-Second Amendment" and "pro --(National Rifle Association)" but he would be open to considering exemptions for sporting events.
"Any time you have emotions that can overflow, mistakes can be made," he said. "I would hate for somebody's emotions to get involved in something and they make a life-changing decision."
'They've threatened before'
Chism said he's aware of university concerns, and noted the Senate may address them. The House, he said, wasn't concerned about it on Wednesday.
"That was discussed some on the House floor today, but that really didn't bother any of us," he said. "You know, they've threatened before. There's supposed to be no alcohol in the stadiums, but my gosh, they sure ain't enforcing that."
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