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SBHE approves policy to authorize gun storage on campuses

BISMARCK — The State Board of Higher Education approved a policy Thursday to allow North Dakota college presidents to authorize individuals to keep firearms in campus residence halls.

The policy was drafted in response to House Bill 1279, a proposal to allow individuals to store firearms or other deadly weapons in state-owned or managed buildings, provided the individual resides in the building, stores the weapons in his or her "assigned residential unit" and secures the consent of "the state, the governing board or a designee."

HB 1279 was written as an emergency measure — a legislative term meaning it would be effective immediately upon signature by the North Dakota secretary of state — and passed unanimously in both houses of the Legislature. It was returned Monday to the House for approval of amendments and is expected to be passed to Gov. Doug Burgum by the end of the week.

Without the bill, possessing firearms in publicly owned buildings could draw a charge of a Class B misdemeanor if the carrier does not meet exemptions, such as those for law enforcement officers.

Though the legislation doesn't specifically mention higher education, representatives of the North Dakota University System testified against the proposal on the possibility it could bring firearms into college dormitories. Much of the Thursday meeting of the SBHE was given over to discussion of how to determine the authority structure for approving firearm storage on campuses.

Richard Rothaus, NDUS vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, introduced the policy and said HB 1279 was written in such a way as to lead to broad interpretation.

"It's not quite sure how it will work out, and it's not exactly clear what all the terms in there might mean," Rothaus said.

The board policy, he said, was intended to "securely place the authority" solely with the board in terms of authorizing individuals to store weapons in their campus residences. The first draft of the rule, which was amended later in the meeting, would have barred campus presidents or other administrators from granting consent for firearm or weapons storage.

"Our concern is we need to close that door right now, then consider the more subtle implications as we have time," Rothaus said. "We don't want to leave an opening where a dormitory adviser who's designated to run a hall on the dorm can say, 'I'm a designee, now you can have a firearm in your dorm room.'"

The first version was approved unanimously, but the board soon delved back into some of those implications, which included the popularity of hunting in some parts of the state and the logistics of how the board would address any requests from individuals to store weapons in their residences.

Rothaus was skeptical individuals would be comfortable appearing before the board in a public setting to request permission to store firearms; board member Greg Stemen wasn't sure the board wanted or was suited to hear such requests.

SBHE Vice Chair Don Morton brought up the possibility of central storage areas on campus where students could keep their firearms, adding the choice to allow weapons was "a decision each campus can probably make" for its local area.

After some confusion, the board produced an amended version that expanded authority to campus presidents to accept requests to keep firearms on campus and in public residences.

Board member Kari Reichert described the first version of the bill as essentially placing weapons storage on hold until the SBHE gained a better understanding of the situation. She and a few other members, including board Chair Kathleen Neset, voted against the amended policy, though it still passed with a majority and went into effect immediately.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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