CHARLESTON, W. Va. (AP) – A bill that would allow people with concealed carry permits to carry firearms on public college and university campuses in West Virginia is coming to Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s desk after clearing the latest hurdle in the GOP dominated legislature.
The state’s House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly for the legislation this week. The justice has not said publicly whether she will sign the bill, which passed last month in the Senate, where half of the entire house — all Republicans — were listed as sponsors.
In the House session, a lawmaker who supported the measure shared an emotional story about responding to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting as a state trooper.
Republican Mike Honaker, who represents a county near the Virginia border, said he will never forget the sight of blood covering the floor of Norris Hall, nor the sound of cell phones ringing as people frantically tried to reach their loved ones who may not respond.
Honaker and other officers were responsible for the harrowing task of notifying parents that their children had been killed. The massacre, in which 32 people were killed, remains the deadliest school shooting in US history.
“Please hear me out: Years ago, I sat at the foot of my bed with Windex and paper towels and washed nearly 30 children’s blood off my shoes from an active shooter on a college campus,” he said .
“I’m afraid that if I don’t support this legislation, and it will happen again, washing their blood off my shoes won’t be comparable to trying to wash the blood off my hands,” he continued.
The bill strictly prohibits the open carry of a firearm on a college or university campus and allows higher education institutions to implement exceptions. It also prohibits people from carrying guns in areas with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators, such as stadiums for football games, or in on-campus daycare centers.
Similar legislation has already passed in 11 other states, including Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho and Oregon. If signed into law, the West Virginia bill would go into effect in July 2024.
Honaker said he understands the concerns of people opposed to the bill, but believes people should have the right to defend themselves. She said she hopes no one at a West Virginia college or university ever has to.
“What makes this issue even heavier for me is that it’s not just a political issue, even though it’s a political issue,” he said. “What makes it even heavier is that it is actually a constitutional issue. We can’t help it.
As the bill passed through the legislative process, the presidents of West Virginia’s largest higher education institutions urged lawmakers to reconsider. They said decisions about whether or not guns should be allowed on campus should be left to institutions to decide, and expressed concern for students struggling with mental health issues.
Before the legislation passed the House, about 40 people — many of them high school students or faculty members from West Virginia — came to speak in a public hearing against the proposal last week. The two people who spoke in support both represented organizations that advocate for the rights of gun owners.
The Republican Del. Larry Kump said Tuesday he’s heard critics of the bill say as Republicans, he and his colleagues should uphold the university’s right to local control. He said the best local control is individual rights protected by the US Constitution.
“The second amendment is my gun license and that’s all I have to say about it,” he said.
But Minority Leader Doug Skaff said lawmakers should spend more time and attention on legislation to provide mental health support for college students, not guns. He said he has introduced legislation to help address the mental health of higher education students and “it hasn’t seen the light of day”.
“Just because we have an absolute majority here, just because you can pass whatever you want, doesn’t mean you should,” he said.
The Democrat Del. John Williams said people bringing guns onto campus with good intentions could make law enforcement’s job more difficult. He said it takes a lot of training to respond to and de-escalate a violent situation involving a deadly weapon, something most college students don’t have.
“One false assumption that I think we’re making is that every one of these people who will bring a gun onto campus is going to be Clint Eastwood, ready to fight,” he said.
The bill would allow exceptions in rooms where disciplinary proceedings are underway for students or employees, and says guns can be restricted in specially designated areas where patient care or mental health counseling is provided.
Schools would be allowed to regulate firearms in residence halls, but not in common areas, including living rooms, dining rooms and study areas. The bill requires colleges and universities to provide a secure place for the storage of a handgun or revolver in at least one on-campus residence hall or make safes available in residence hall rooms, which may incur a fee.