Debbie Clevenger didn’t have strong feelings about guns on campus until a freshman with a sawed-off shotgun murdered her son James in a dorm at Montana State University in 1990.
“He was shot up so bad,” Clevenger said last week in a phone call. The gunman used double-aught buckshot, she said. “Those are tiny, and they just split your body apart.”
This year, a bill that would allow guns on campus is sailing through the Montana Legislature. House Bill 102 also would strip the Montana Board of Regents’ authority to regulate firearms on campuses. The bill is marching through the Senate; the House voted 66-31 last week to approve it.
Brett Byers is serving 150 years in the Montana State Prison for two counts of deliberate homicide for the deaths of James Clevenger and fellow student Brian Boeder and another 15 years for using a dangerous weapon.
“(Legislators) had rocks in their head when they passed this bill,” said Clevenger, of Lockwood.
Rep. Seth Berglee, a Republican from Joliet, outlined the reason for the bill in the opening of the text. In committee hearings, lawmakers and members of the public have praised Berglee, himself a trained marksman, for his work on the legislation.
“The purpose … is to enhance the safety of people by expanding their legal ability to provide for their own defense by reducing or eliminating government-mandated places where only criminals are armed and where citizens are prevented from exercising their fundamental right to defend themselves and others,” reads the bill.
In ushering such legislation into law, Montana would join other states that have pushed in recent years to allow guns on campus. The National Conference on State Legislatures counted 19 states that introduced legislation to allow concealed carry in 2013 and 14 states that proposed such bills the following year.
The trend follows fatal campus shootings across the country, including the one that left 32 dead at Virginia Tech in 2007. Proponents argue laws like HB102 will allow law-abiding gun owners to help prevent similar tragedies.
Should HB102 become law in Montana, it will play out on state campuses and likely in courtrooms.
On campuses? Data on firearms and college campuses is limited, but the numbers don’t tell a story of greater safety. On the other hand, a study from the Center for American Progress found a “strong and significant link between weak gun laws and high rates of gun violence.”
In court? At least a couple of cases in the U.S. have overturned bans of concealed carry on state campuses. The Montana Constitution gives the Board of Regents power to supervise college campuses, but the scope of its authority hasn’t been tested in the courts lately for a simple reason.
“There haven’t been very many threats to the university system’s autonomy from the Legislature in recent years,” said Anthony Johnstone, professor at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law.
Former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill in the past, and another one died in the Legislature. This year, for the first time in 16 years, a Republican is at the helm in Montana, and HB102 looks quickly headed to the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Byers wasn’t supposed to be carrying that gun in the dorm, and Clevenger said if the resident assistants or other campus authorities who knew he kept it in his truck had taken action, her son would still be alive.
With a high level of training, she believes faculty and security officers who want to carry firearms on campus should be able to do so. However, Clevenger said firearms, alcohol and young people don’t mix.
“You’ve got hormonal kids who drink in the dorms all the time,” she said. “I don’t care what they tell you. They do. I have two grandchildren in college right now.”
The factors Clevenger cites anecdotally, alcohol and youth, were included in a study, “Firearms on College Campuses: Research Evidence and Policy Implications,” from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study is dated 2016; lead researcher Daniel Webster confirmed the report is the most recent one on the topic by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
According to the study, youth in college have a higher risk for violence, suicide, alcohol abuse, and risky behavior, and adding a firearm to the mix “greatly increases the risk of lethal and near-lethal outcomes.”
The report notes regulations related to guns on campus are relatively new, and there had been no “formal evaluations” of those policies; Berglee agreed data specific to guns on campus is limited. However, the report digs into related analyses, such as the effect of right-to-carry laws on violent crime and patterns in mass shootings.
Most firearm deaths in Montana are suicides, some 85.7 percent, not mass shootings, according to data from gun violence prevention organization Everytown for Gun Safety. Nonetheless, the Johns Hopkins report noted that in 111 mass shootings of six or more victims, 84 percent took place where there was no evidence guns were prohibited.
“These data do not suggest that gun-allowing zones deter gun massacres,” it said.
A separate study by Texas State University and the U.S. Department of Justice FBI of 160 active shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013 found 60 percent of them ended before police arrived; Berglee has made a similar argument in testimony. The report also noted that in 21 of those cases, unarmed civilians disrupted the shooter and ended the threat; just one case involved an armed civilian ending the attack. The Johns Hopkins report cited the study.
“The FBI’s data suggest that unarmed civilians are more than 20 times more likely to successfully end an active shooting than are armed civilians,” the report said.
The Center for American Progress looked at the relationship between gun violence and weak gun laws. The 2016 study didn’t look specifically at college campuses, but it compared states.
“The 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have an aggregate level of gun violence that is 3.2 times higher than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws,” the report said. “And while this correlation does not prove a causal relationship between stronger gun laws and fewer gun deaths, the link between stronger gun laws and lower rates of gun violence cannot be ignored.”
The rationale for and against guns on campus can sound like a competition in reading tea leaves. Berglee has asked if the slaughter at Virginia Tech might have been different if one of the first two people shot, a resident assistant, had been armed.
Kiely Lammers, with Moms Demand Action, grew up with guns, but she said people shouldn’t underestimate the training it takes to use a firearm with skill. Even if armed, she said, an RA may not be equipped.
“That’s always a missing piece in Berglee’s argument. He’s a highly trained marksman. But that’s not the norm,” Lammers said.
Berglee points to a different norm in Montana. Montana has a high population of military veterans, an estimated 9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration. So in a room of 20 people, it’s possible at least one is a combat veteran, Berglee said. Should that person be forced to sit on their hands?
“It’s not congruent in a society where you are giving people the rights to defend themselves,” Berglee said.
Such situations are rare. The Pew Research Center noted in 2019 that mass shootings aren’t uniformly defined, but fatalities from them are a “small fraction” of gun murders. It also noted such incidents are on the rise. On campuses, though, people have been safer than across the street, as the Montana University System has argued. A U.S. Department of Justice report said 93 percent of violent crimes against students are committed off campus.
If safety is truly the goal, as the purpose of the bill states, Lammers said guns aren’t the fix.
“If we really want to confront and prevent gun violence in Montana, we need to confront suicide,” she said. She noted access to a gun triples the risk of suicide. “If we were really trying to solve a safety issue, we would not be adding more guns to an already susceptible population.”
Berglee too offers up information about the student population on college campuses. He points in part to a 2015 report from John Lott and the Crime Prevention Research Center stating those who hold permits “are extremely law-abiding,” and the revocation rates for college-age permit-holders is low.
The report concludes: “There is little reason to worry about young adults carry (sic) concealed handguns.”
Lott cites his own controversial book in the footnotes, “More Guns, Less Crime,” first published in 1998. His work has been called into question by researchers in peer-reviewed journals and the RAND Corp. Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research told the Washington Post in 2014 Lott’s scholarship was both “completely discredited” and influential in helping push pro-gun legislation.
Webster recently described Lott’s work to The Trace: “I’ve seen him in different venues literally start making stuff up.”
In a letter supporting HB102, though, the longest-serving member of Utah’s Concealed Carry Review Board vouched for students and permit holders. Clark Aposhian noted Utah has affirmatively allowed firearms on campus for 17 years, the University of Utah counts some 35,000 students, and anyone at least 18 years old can apply for a concealed carry permit.
“Violence on campus is rare, especially involving weapons let alone firearms,” Aposhian wrote in a letter Berglee provided. “When it does occur, I know of none which involved a permit holder as the aggressor.”
The most recent draft of the bill in Montana notes 37 other lawmakers as sponsors.
Central to the argument in favor of expanding places people can carry guns is the right citizens have to defend themselves. But the right to bear arms is not absolute in either the U.S. Constitution or the Montana Constitution, said Johnstone, of the UM School of Law.
Montana’s right to bear arms says the following: “The right of any person to keep or bear arms in defense of his own home, person, and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall not be called in question, but nothing herein contained shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.”
In the District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Second Amendment protects people’s rights to bear arms separate from militia service; HB102 cites the case. But Justice Antonin Scalia also wrote the right is not unlimited, and concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld. He noted longstanding prohibitions include “the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
The 2008 decision found a wholesale ban on handguns in the District of Columbia was unconstitutional, but it acknowledged trouble in the country as well: “We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country … . The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns …”
The National Conference of State Legislatures noted that recent legislation and court rulings meant 10 states allowed concealed weapons on college campuses as of its 2019 overview. (The list didn’t include Tennessee, where faculty members with licenses can carry weapons on campus, but not students or the public.)
In Montana, the Board of Regents oversee campuses, and the Montana Constitution notes the following: “The government and control of the Montana University System is vested in a board of regents of higher education which shall have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system.”
“Montana has one of the stronger provisions in the country that provide the Board of Regents with full control over the university system,” Johnstone said.
Clearly, the Board of Regents have power over certain responsibilities, such as hiring and curriculum, he said. And clearly, the Montana Legislature has power over funding the university system.
Then, there’s a gray area. In the 1970s, the legislature tried to deal with line items in the university’s budget, including some salaries.
“The Supreme Court said under the constitution that that has to be the Board of Regents’ decision. That is central to the running of a university,” Johnstone said.
If signed into law, House Bill 102 would prohibit the Regents from enforcing “or coercing compliance with” rules that restrict people’s right to carry firearms. The Montana University System has not indicated it would take the matter to court, but a review by the legislature’s legal analysts notes the bill may not conform to the state constitution and the rights it gives Regents.
“In essence, the question is whether the university system is able to fulfill its purposes consistent with the legislation or not,” Johnstone said. “And there are differing views on that.”
James Clevenger had wanted to be a chemical engineer, but he changed his mind at Montana State University. He came home for Christmas and talked to his mom, Debbie Clevenger said. She remembered the exchange: “ ‘Mom, I want to be a teacher. I want to teach little kids.’ I said, ‘That’s wonderful, honey.’ ”
James isn’t the poster child for deaths by firearms in Montana; those are suicides, and he didn’t kill himself. But today, his death would be representative.
“The impact of gun violence falls disproportionately on young people in the United States,” said the Center for American Progress report of people younger than 21. “In 2015, gun violence surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death of Millennials in this country.”
On May 15, 1990, an angry Byers brought a gun inside a dorm room, and two other students lost the fight. James died at 19 years old and three months.
“My son had a wonderful heart,” Clevenger said. “He had a great heart. He loved people. There were so many people at his funeral. It was standing-room-only in a Catholic church of a pretty good size. So many people had testimony and told us how much he helped them and how kind he was.”
The year he and Boeder died, students at MSU were inspired to create a memorial on campus to remember their peers who died before completing their degrees. The students are renovating the memorial this year, and the names of all those who died are written on its pillars.
This story originally appeared online at the Daily Montanan and is republished here by permission.