Kentucky GOP bill to prevent college, university campuses from banning guns advances | National

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — A bill to prevent Kentucky higher education institutions from banning guns on campus won approval from a legislative committee Tuesday.

The proposal from Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, would prohibit public colleges and universities in the commonwealth from preventing anyone over the age of 21 from carrying a concealed weapon on campus. Firearms are not currently allowed in these spaces.

As Maddox explained to the House Veterans, Military Affairs & Public Protection Committee on March 7, it would “remove the ability for a post-secondary institution to restrict the ability of law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights.”

Maddox’s proposal, which is opposed by the Council on Post-Secondary Education, came in the form of a last-minute committee substitution to House Bill 542, “An act relating to workforce development.” It’s what’s commonly referred to as a “ shell bill,” or a mule bill, which is when lawmakers file bills with seeming inconsequential content late in the session for the purpose of stripping them to put in something new at the last minute, often with little public input.

Maddox’s initial bill proposed changing two verbs in a section of the Kentucky Revised Statutes related to workforce development — supplant “equip” with “prepare,” and swap out “stifle” for “hinder.”

The Republican’s committee substitution — to disallow university and college campuses from outlawing firearms — came late Monday afternoon, one committee member said.

In a session dominated by a raft of anti-LGBTQ legislation, Republicans have also filed their fair share of bills aimed at expanding Kentuckians’ access to guns. Maddox, who dropped out of the GOP primary for governor in December, has filed at least four bills to undo the state’s firearm restrictions this session. They include House Bill 118, to lower the lawful age of carrying a concealed weapon from 21 to 18, and House Bill 138, to expand the places where one can conceal carry to include colleges, universities, and local and state government buildings.

But so far, HB 542, which committee members approved along party lines on Tuesday, is the only from Maddox with traction. It now moves to the House for a floor vote. West Virginia and Tennessee are among the latest states to pass similar measures.

In each of Maddox’s five years in the statehouse, the Northern Kentucky representative has filed legislation relaxing the state’s gun laws. In 2019, she and former governor Matt Bevin were recognized by the National Rifle Association (NRA) for their work in passing Senate Bill 150, which allows gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a separate permit or training.

Citing a proliferation of school shootings, Maddox told the committee, “banning firearms on campus is clearly not a deterrent for those who would willingly harm others, yet it ensures that innocent victims are defenseless in the face of the unthinkable.” She added, “gun-free zones do not work. All they manage to do is create an attractive nuisance for criminals who prey on innocent victims and destroy lives.”

Maddox was flanked by Art Thomm, an NRA lobbyist, who said the bill “seeks to empower men and women to protect themselves from violent attacks while eliminating a proven weak point for deranged individuals seeking to do harm.” Moreover, Thomm said, “denying women their constitutional rights in self-protection empowers criminals and leaves women vulnerable to attack.”

Rep. Bill Wesley, R-Ravenna, agreed, saying, “I guarantee if you ask any woman that was raped on a campus,” they would’ve preferred to have a gun to fight their attacker. “I believe these students — responsible adults paying for their college education — that they have a right to defend themselves.”

But the Kentucky Council on Post-Secondary Education, the board overseeing all state universities and community college systems, disagreed.

“We are unaware of any reliable statistical evidence that shows students, faculty, and staff carrying guns, particularly concealed handguns, reduces violence on college campuses,” CPE President Aaron Thompson said in a statement Tuesday.

Travis Powell, vice president and general counsel for CPE, said all public college and university presidents, as well as all campus police chiefs, are united in their opposition to the bill.

Kentucky’s public university and college campuses have chosen to remain gun free and “want to maintain that flexibility,” Powell said. Allowing guns on campus “decreases their ability to keep their campuses safe, particularly considering the nature of the populations they serve and the locations of these campuses, which include health care facilities and cooperative extension offices throughout the state.”

Rep. John Blanton, R-Saylersville, later asked Maddox whether her bill would apply to university hospitals, like UK HealthCare, which shares a campus with the University of Kentucky and could be considered a “post-secondary education facility” by, for example, medical students. Maddox said she wasn’t sure.

“I’m happy to look at that. But beyond the definition we have in place here, that is what I can speak to,” she said.

Western Kentucky University Campus Police Chief Mitch Walker said he and his fellow campus chiefs are “concerned” about students’ lack of training at handling or storing these weapons, should they be allowed to bring them to school.

Campus police have many protocols in place to respond to active shooter scenarios, Walker said. Allowing “more guns on campus, we believe, would make it a much more unsafe environment.”

No one affiliated with a post-secondary institution spoke in favor of the bill, which prompted Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, to ask Maddox, “which universities or other post-secondary institutions support this bill?”

None, Maddox said.

She said she met with all public universities in January, “and at that time, there were no public universities that expressed support of the bill,” Maddox said. “But at the same time, we’ve been very open throughout the process, and I’m always willing to hear out the concerns of others.”

Bojanowski said it’s “hard for the community to accept that you’re open about the process” when the committee substitute was filed less than 24 hours before it was to be vetted in committee.

Louisville Democratic Reps. Pam Stevenson and Sarah Stalker criticized the bill not only as dangerous, but said it lacks any reasonable training or safety requirements.

“I’m not opposed to guns, but what I am opposed to is the General Assembly’s unwillingness to really pass any meaningful legislation that will actually protect people,” Stalker said. “These are common sense, low-hanging best practices that we are continuing to avoid.”

Maddox has filed legislation similar to HB 542 in the past, but those iterations of the bill did not make it out of committee.

One major gun rights bill has passed the full house so far this session. House Bill 153 from Rep. Josh Bray, R-Mount Vernon, would prohibit local and state law enforcement from enforcing a federal ban or regulation on firearms. It passed the full House last year, but fizzled in the Senate. It’s been assigned to the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, & Public Protection.

Herald-Leader writer Austin Horn contributed to this story.

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