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Bill adds ‘teeth’ to Md. campus gun policies, supporters say

School policies generally forbid bringing guns to Maryland’s public colleges and universities, but lawmakers in Annapolis are considering a bill to make that practice the law – and attach a criminal penalty.

“It’s much more difficult to change a statute than simply change a policy,” Del. Ben Barnes, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, one of the bill’s lead sponsor, told the House Appropriations Committee at a bill hearing Tuesday. “This lets the citizens of Maryland know that we are serious about creating a safe environment for their children when they send them off to college.”

The proposed penalty – a fine of up to $1,000 and up to three years in jail for the misdemeanor offense – gives the law teeth, Barnes said.

The proposal, backed by legislative leadership, forbids carrying or possessing firearms or other deadly weapons on the campuses of the state’s public colleges and universities. But it carves out exceptions for campus security, on- and off-duty law enforcement and some educational activities such as historical reenactment.

Barnes told the committee it was important to consider the dangers not only of mass shootings, but of gun-related accidents and suicide attempts, which are much more likely to be fatal when a gun is used than other means.

But some members of the committee worried that the ban would leave students unable to defend themselves if they were in danger, such as in an active shooter situation.

In such a circumstance, people who have already been granted permission from the state to carry a concealed weapon might be able to act, said Del. Tony McConkey, R-Anne Arundel.

But if police respond to reports of an active shooter and see someone with a gun, it could end in tragedy, said David Mitchell, police chief at the University of Maryland, College Park, who testified in favor of the bill.

At a recent campus shooting in Oregon, “folks who had concealed-carry wisely did not pull their gun,” Mitchell said.

Those with concealed-carry permits may be trained to use their weapons, but they aren’t trained to respond to active shooters, don’t wear body armor like police, and would complicate police efforts to stop a shooter, Mitchell said.

Gun-right advocacy groups, including Maryland Shall Issue and the National Rifle Association, testified against the bill, arguing that it deprived people of their right to defend themselves.

College students are adults who can drink alcohol, be called up for military service, and legally purchase firearms, said Shannon Alford, the NRA’s Maryland state liaison. But of the bill is adopted, when those students or faculty members come onto a campus, they would be obligated to give up a fundamental right, she said.

The University System of Maryland agreed to support the bill if it was amended to make sure the presidents of its member institutions had enough discretion to grant exceptions to the law.

System officials want to make sure police officers – some of whom are required by their jurisdictions to carry their weapons when off-duty – can continue to attend classes; they also wanted to protect the hunting community at Frostburg State University, where weapons are allowed on campus as long as they are registered and stored with university police.

Barnes and the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery have agreed to the proposed changes; Madaleno noted that the amendment would also make sure culinary students didn’t need to worry about using their knives.