CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would allow people with concealed carry permits to bring firearms on state college and university campuses, despite overwhelming opposition from frustrated students who came to the Capitol to testify against it.
Some higher education students traveled hours to Charleston to speak against the bill at a public hearing hosted by the House Judiciary Committee, which took place before lawmakers voted to advance the proposal to the full House. The bill was passed by the Senate last month, and has been publicly opposed by the leadership of the state's largest universities.
The bill advanced just two days after a shooting hundreds of miles away at Michigan State University that killed three people and wounded five others. The tragedy loomed over West Virginia's Capitol as lawmakers gathered to listen to the public hearing.
Marshall University student E.T. Bowen said students are already "terrified on campus as it is."
"We don't need more guns to exacerbate that. This bill is like throwing kerosene on the wildfire, and it is appalling that we even need to say that while there's still blood on the ground at Michigan State," Bowen said.
Bowen told lawmakers, students will not forget "how casually you all have disregarded our safety and well-being in favor of profit and political gain."
Around 40 people — many of them students or faculty members — came to speak at the hearing against the proposal, which would allow people with a license to carry a concealed pistol or revolver to bring the weapon on campus. The two people who spoke in support both represented organizations that advocate for gun owner rights.
The bill strictly prohibits the open carry of a firearm on a college or university campus, and allows institutions of higher learning to implement exceptions. It also prohibits people from bringing guns into areas with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators — stadiums for football games, for example — or to on-campus daycare centers.
Similar legislation has already passed in 11 other states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas and Oregon.
Before speaking against the bill, Dr. Jim McJunkin, a physician representing the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said his thoughts were with the Michigan State victims and their families. He expressed concern that having access to firearms on campus could increase students' suicide risk.
Bella Mitchell, a senior at West Virginia University and a member of the Student Government Association, said the prospect of having guns allowed on campus "fosters an environment of mistrust, uncertainty and anxiety."
"We feel as though it's completely unnecessary," she said.
Keeley Wildman read a statement for her sister, who was a freshman at Philip Barbour High School in the small West Virginia town of Philippi, where a 14-year-old boy, armed with a handgun, took a teacher and several classmates hostage in 2015.
She described seeing law enforcement surround the school and hiding in a closet with strangers as they received texts and calls from family members.
"In the following years, which were supposed to be the best of my life, I never felt safe at school," Wildman said, at one point wiping tears from her eyes as she read her sister's account. "I experienced panic attacks, nightmares and increased anxiety."
But supporters of the legislation said they're worried about gun violence on campus, too, and they think allowing people with concealed carry permits to carry weapons would help.
Art Thomm, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, told lawmakers the shooting at Michigan State is exactly why people with concealed carry permits should be permitted to have guns on campus. The Michigan shooting was perpetrated in an area where guns are not allowed by a person who was not connected with the university and obtained the weapon illegally, he said.
"Our loved ones deserve the right to defend themselves from a deadly attack in a gun-free zone without having to make the choice of employment, education or their life," he said.
Before voting to advance the bill, supporter Republican Del. Mike Honaker spoke about his experience responding to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech as a former Virginia State Police officer. With two other officers, the Marine Corps veteran was responsible for making half of the death notifications to the 32 families who lost loved ones.
"I know we have to be careful about this issue," he said. "But there's no way that I, as someone who has lived through this and seen it with my own eyes, could forbid another free law-abiding American citizen from carrying a firearm and retaining the ability and the capacity to defend yourself or others, God forbid they ever be put in a position to do it."
The bill would allow exceptions in rooms where a student or employee disciplinary proceeding is being held, and says guns can be restricted in specifically designated areas where patient care or mental health counseling is being provided.
Schools would be permitted to regulate firearms in residence halls, but not in common areas, including lounges, dining areas and study areas. The bill requires colleges and universities to provide either a secure location for storage of a pistol or revolver in at least one on-campus residence hall — or to make safes available in residence rooms, which could come with a fee.
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