CHARLESTON, W. Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would allow people with concealed carry permits to carry firearms on state college and university campuses, despite overwhelming opposition from frustrated students who came to the Capitol to testify against it.
Some high school students traveled for 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 bill to the entire House. The bill passed the Senate last month and was publicly opposed by the leadership of the state’s largest universities.
The bill moved just two days after a shooting hundreds of miles away at Michigan State University that killed three people and injured five others. Tragedy loomed over the West Virginia Capitol as lawmakers gathered to hear 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 the situation. This bill is like throwing kerosene on a fire, and it’s scary that we even have to say it while there’s still blood on the ground in the State of Michigan,” Bowen said.
Bowen told lawmakers the students won’t forget “how casually you all have ignored our safety and well-being in favor of profit and political gain.”
About 40 people — many of them students or faculty — spoke at the hearing against the proposal, which would allow licensed individuals to carry a concealed handgun or revolver to carry the firearm on campus. The two people who spoke in support both represented organizations that advocate for the rights of gun owners.
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 Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas and Oregon.
Before speaking out against the bill, Dr. Jim McJunkin, a physician representing the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said his thoughts were with Michigan State victims and their families. He expressed concern that access to firearms on campus could increase students’ risk of suicide.
Bella Mitchell, a senior at West Virginia University and a member of the Student Government Association, said the prospect of having guns permitted on campus “fosters an environment of mistrust, uncertainty and anxiety.”
“We feel like it’s completely unnecessary,” she said.
Keeley Wildman read a statement to her sister, who was a freshman at Philip Barbour High School in the small town of Philippi, West Virginia, where a 14-year-old boy, armed with a pistol, took a teacher and several classmates hostage. class in 2015 .
She described seeing law enforcement officers surround the school and hide in a closet with strangers as they received texts and calls from family members.
“In the years that followed, which should have been the best of my life, I never felt safe in school,” Wildman said, wiping tears from her eyes as she read her sister’s account. “I’ve experienced panic attacks, nightmares, and increased anxiety.”
But supporters of the legislation said they are also concerned about gun violence on campus and think allowing people with concealed carry permits to carry guns would help.
Art Thomm, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, told lawmakers that the Michigan state shooting is exactly why people with concealed carry permits should be allowed to have guns on campus. The Michigan shooting was perpetrated in an area where guns are not permitted by a person who was not connected to the university and obtained the gun illegally, he said.
“Our loved ones deserve the right to defend themselves against a deadly attack in an arms-free zone without having to choose jobs, education or their own lives,” he said.
Before voting to advance the bill, Republican backer Del. Mike Honaker spoke about his experience responding to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting as a former Virginia State Police officer. With two other officers, the Marine Corps veteran was responsible for 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 is no way that I, as someone who has lived through it all and seen it with my own eyes, could forbid another free and law-abiding American citizen from carrying a firearm and maintaining the ability and the ability to stand up for yourself or for others, God forbid they should ever be put in a position to do so.”
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 provide safes in residence hall rooms, which may incur a fee .