CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Senators in West Virginia overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill Tuesday allowing people with concealed carry permits to bring firearms onto college and university campuses, despite ardent opposition from higher education leaders.
"Thank God for West Virginia and freedom," the bill's lead sponsor Republican Sen. Rupie Phillips said, shortly before the Senate passed the bill 29-4. At least half of the West Virginia Senate — all Republicans — were listed as sponsors.
The "Campus Self-Defense Act," which now heads to the Republican supermajority in the House of Delegates, would only apply to people holding a license to carry a concealed pistol or revolver.
It strictly prohibits the open carry of a firearm on a college or university campus, and allows institutions of higher learning to implement exceptions. People could be prohibited 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.
Republican Sen. Charles Trump said similar legislation has already passed in 11 other states: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
West Virginia law currently allows colleges and universities to prohibit guns on their campuses. Supporters of the proposed legislation say citizens have a constitutional right to carry weapons for self-defense. Similar bills have been introduced during past legislative sessions but failed to gain enough traction to advance.
Phillips, who has sponsored similar bills in the past, noted the rate of women who face sexual assault on college campuses — and said allowing for concealed carry on campus would help address that issue.
"I don't want my daughter to have to face this — I don't want your daughter, your granddaughters to ever have to face that," Phillips said to fellow lawmakers. "That's another reason that we need to get this through."
A survey by the Association of American Universities found that around 26% of female students are victims of sexual assault or misconduct while they're undergraduates. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner — and research shows that possessing a firearm is not a protective factor.
The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation actually increases the risk of homicide by 500%, according to the American Public Health Association.
Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo — one of three Democrats in the 34-member Senate — pointed out that many advocates for victims of domestic violence oppose the legislation. As do advocates for people with mental illnesses, who said it could increase suicide risk.
Caputo, who said he's a gun owner with a concealed carry permit, said he's "deeply concerned" about the bill advancing.
"I think it's a bad idea to basically encourage folks to carry weapons on campus," he said. "Kids are partying and learning and growing up and things happen — they just do. I dread the thought that handguns will be so easily accessible."
As the bill advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, several prominent West Virginia university leaders also urged lawmakers to reconsider.
The presidents of West Virginia University and Marshall University — the state's largest institutions of higher education — wrote a letter to lawmakers opposing the bill and stating that decisions about whether guns should be allowed on campus should be up to the institutions' board of governors.
The presidents of West Virginia State University, Concord University and Shepherd University said they "strongly support the second amendment and the right for law abiding citizens to own firearms, but have serious reservations about the significant public safety challenges and financial burdens" that the bill would introduce.
They said that because of the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all institutions of higher education are seeing more students grapple with mental health challenges and need additional support services.
"Introducing firearms into this already challenging environment could have unintended consequences," they said, noting that access to firearms increases suicide risks.
The bill allows institutions to prohibit the carrying of concealed firearms at organized events taking place at a stadium or arena with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators, like sports games. It also provides exceptions for daycare facilities located on university property, or in rooms where a student or employee disciplinary proceeding is being held. It also 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, except for in common areas such as lounges, dining areas and study areas. It 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 they are permitted to charge a fee for.
Concealed carry could also be prohibited in any building used by a law enforcement agency on campus or one that has security measures in place to ensure pistols and revolvers are not carried in by the public. Those security measures could be a metal detector or a guard with a wand, according to Republican Sen. Charles Trump, who explained the bill on the Senate floor Tuesday.
"In other words, if any university, any college or university, wants to say: 'We want this building to be gun free,' they can do it," Trump said. "But they have to make sure that nobody's going to be able to get a gun in there."
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