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ND legislation could allow RAs to keep guns in dorm room, university system official says

BISMARCK — A bill being considered by North Dakota lawmakers could allow university residence hall directors and resident assistants to store a firearm in their dorm rooms, drawing concern from the North Dakota University System.

But a Republican lawmaker said the bill isn't aimed at university residences and includes adequate safeguards.

House Bill 1279 adds new language to a section of state law exempting certain people from the ban on guns at public gatherings. It would cover a public employee who, "through the course of the individual's employment," resides in and stores a firearm or dangerous weapon in their government-owned residence.

While the bill doesn't specifically mention higher education entities, it could include residence hall directors or resident assistants, known as RAs, living in university housing, said Katie Fitzsimmons, director of student affairs for the university system.

The bill would require permission from the "governing body or person responsible for the management of the building," but Fitzsimmons said that's too vague. That language may mean the State Board of Higher Education, the director of residential life, the university's president or others, she said.

"We just want this to be the responsibility of the (State) Board of Higher Education," Fitzsimmons said.

Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, said the bill wasn't inspired by university concerns and instead pointed to Oil Patch housing that's owned by public entities. He said the spouse of a law enforcement officer could be in violation of the law if there's a firearm in the house, such as a shotgun for hunting, once the officer leaves for work.

"It's one of those things that was completely overlooked inside of the areas where you could not possess a dangerous weapon that we're trying to clean up," Porter said. "The owner of the building ... could still say 'no.' But right now, they don't have the ability in the current law to say 'yes.'"

Porter also doubted a university would allow an RA to have a gun in their residence.

Billie Jo Lorius, spokeswoman for the university system, said they don't have an overarching policy on prohibiting guns on campuses, but individual campuses do. State law makes it a Class B misdemeanor for someone to knowingly possess a firearm at a public gathering, which includes a "publicly owned or operated building," with exceptions for law enforcement officers and others.

Lawmakers last session passed a law allowing college and university employees and students to keep guns in locked cars on campus. Fitzsimmons said some campus police departments provide storage for hunting firearms.

House Bill 1279 is a part of a package of gun legislation making its way through the Legislature this session. It was changed significantly since Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, first introduced it, but he said he supports the bill.

Koppelman said it could apply to the governor's residence, university presidents' houses and other "government-owned residential dwellings that are provided to an employee as part of their employment." He said it would give those people the same rights as private homeowners.

"Those of us who own or rent private property, we enjoy the Second Amendment ... and I believe anybody should be able to have the right to defend their family in their home," Koppelman said. "And whether that home happens to be owned by the government and you just live there as part of your employment, that should not take away your rights to defend your family."

The bill passed the House last month in an 89-0 vote and went before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, March 14. The committee didn't take any immediate action on the bill.

Lisa Feldner, the university system's chief of staff, told the committee Tuesday the higher education board has not taken a position on the legislation, "but they are not excited about any of the proposed gun bills."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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