Bill would allow guns on Maine public college campuses

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GORHAM — A bill that would allow guns on the campuses of Maine’s public colleges and universities is drawing fire.

Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, presented LD 1370, which is aimed at enhancing campus safety, according to a printed description about the bill.

The measure would impact the University of Southern Maine, with campuses in Gorham, Lewiston-Auburn, and Portland, as well as Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. The measure would not apply to private colleges, such as St. Joseph’s in Standish. 

Cebra did not respond to a request through the Maine House Republican Office for a telephone interview.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, said he opposes allowing guns on campuses.

“I personally don’t want to be sitting in a room alone with someone who is packing heat,” McLean, a University of Southern Maine employee, said in an email Monday. “I think it is a horribly dangerous idea.”

Muhammad Khan, president of the student body at the University of Southern Maine, also criticized the proposal.

“Putting guns on college campuses makes no sense,” Khan, a junior, said in an interview Tuesday on the Gorham campus.

According to Khan, students planned to host a public forum at 1 p.m. Thursday, April 13, in the Woodbury Campus Center in Portland about the gun bill. 

Under language of the bill, public institutions could not prohibit lawful possession of firearms and ammunition carried onto campuses by those authorized under state law to carry concealed handguns. Firearms now are not permitted by either the University of Maine System or the Maine Community College System.

The bill appears to be in response to the growing number of national incidents involving shootings in schools. In preparation for an incident, the Gorham Police Department in the past has conducted active-shooter training with university police on the USM campus.

Crisis training proved valuable in January 2014, when Gorham and campus police responded to a report of an armed student barricaded in an off-campus fraternity house. The suspect, after leaving a restaurant that serves alcohol, allegedly pointed a gun at someone.

A standoff shut down the heart of Gorham Village for hours, but led to an arrest without a shot being fired.

Gorham Police Chief Daniel Jones said Tuesday that allowing guns on campus is a university issue and wouldn’t have a “day-in, day-out” effect on his department.
“I could argue either side,” Jones said about the issue.

If it passes, the bill would not allow concealed weapons in campus auditoriums, theaters, and stadiums with a seating capacity of 1,000 or more, or in dormitories.

“I don’t think dorms are the best place for guns,” Jones said.

Under the wording being proposed, Jones said, “schools would still have some control.”

Trustees of the various educational institutions would appear to have limited latitude in adopting rules and regulations over permitting firearms on their campuses.

“The universities are now analyzing the proposal and will participate in the hearing process when the bill comes before the Education Committee later in the legislative session,” Dan Demeritt, executive director of public relations for the University of Maine System, said in an email.

Alexander Buzzell, a USM freshman and press secretary for the student government, said Tuesday that Maine campuses rank among the top 10 safest in the country. Allowing guns could “potentially” make college campuses less safe, he said.

Trustees at the Maine Community College System shared Buzzell’s opinion.

“MCCS trustees have long followed the advice of law enforcement in this area,” said Helen Pelletier, public affairs director for the Maine Community College System. “The consistent advice from those who have served in the state police and municipal police departments is that more guns on campus will not make our campuses safer, and, to the contrary, would make our campuses less safe.”

Buzzell said he hopes U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, will speak out against the bill.

Release of the bill’s language came the week after a threatening, anti-Muslim message was scrawled on a poster at USM in Portland that advises students how to react in case of an active shooter. 

Khan said Muslim students are frustrated and afraid. “We take it as a legitimate threat,” the Gorham High School graduate said.

About mixing such threats with allowing guns to be carried on campus, he said, “It won’t make the situation any better.”

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com.

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