A bill that would force Maine’s public colleges to allow carrying of concealed weapons on campuses faced significant opposition at a public hearing Monday.

“Our students feel safe on our campus,” said Samuel Borer, a University of Maine physics major and a member of the Air Force Reserve who served overseas. “The University of Maine is blessed to have a climate that allows for the cultivation of knowledge. … Please do not put this in jeopardy by allowing weapons into our classrooms.”

Borer was one of more than a dozen people speaking against the bill, which would require the campuses to allow people to bring concealed guns on campus, except in dorms and at public event venues, such as a stadium or concert hall, when signs forbidding guns during an event are posted.

In 2007, in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, the Maine Legislature determined that the state would neither ban nor permit guns on public college campuses, leaving it up to the institutions. In 2009, that was expanded to private colleges in Maine.

Currently, Maine is one of 23 states that leave the decision up to each college or university, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nine states have laws that allow students to carry firearms on campus.

Recently, a state law went into effect in Texas that allows students 21 and older who have concealed handgun licenses to bring their guns onto campus at all public colleges and universities, except at some college facilities, including sports arenas and chemical labs. The law was opposed by some college officials and faculty members, who said it could have the effect of chilling debate on sensitive topics in the classroom.

Kathleen McFadden of Gouldsboro speaks Monday against legislation that would allow concealed guns on public college campuses in Maine. McFadden is a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Photo by Elise Klysa

Maine’s public colleges currently forbid guns on campus except by express permission from officials and in certain situations, such as a visiting law enforcement official. State law allows anyone 21 or older to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

“But they’ve abused that power and have a de facto prohibition on campus,” said Gorham Town Councilor Benjamin Hartwell, who spoke in favor of the bill. Hartwell, a student at the University of Maine School of Law, presented the signatures of four other students who he said supported the bill.

Bill sponsor Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, wasn’t at the hearing, but submitted written testimony saying the idea that gun-free zones are safer is “magical thinking.”

“Given that gun-free zones seem to be a magnet for mass shooters, maybe we should be working to shrink or eliminate them,” Cebra wrote.

“Our law doesn’t create a safe space; it creates a victim zone,” said Todd Tolhurst, president of Gun Owners of Maine, a citizen advocacy group that claims several thousand members. “It is time for Maine to retire this illogical and counterproductive prohibition.”

Benjamin Hartwell, a town councilor from Gorham, testifies Monday in support of a bill that would allow students to carry concealed guns on public college campuses. Members of a group opposed to the legislation, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, wearing red T-shirts, listen to his testimony. Photo by Elise Klysa

Bill opponents, however, noted that college life is already volatile because of stress over grades, romantic relationships mental health issues and the use of drugs and alcohol. Others noted research showing that 18- to 25-year-olds are more impulsive and thrill-seeking.

“Now let’s add a lethal weapon to this scene,” said Deb Large, of Hallowell. “If you allow L.D. 1370 to pass, then you are putting guns into the hands of students that are not yet equipped to handle life in front of them. Do not give them a life-taking weapon at this precarious time on their journey to the future.”

Representatives of the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy, where the bill would apply, all oppose the legislation.

Community college system President Derek Langhauser said his trustees have “significant concerns” with the bill.

“This bill is not consistent with either long-standing Maine law or the advice my trustees have received from law enforcement professionals across the state,” Langhauser said. “This bill is also not consistent with the substantial majority of other states, 41 of which have either rejected or otherwise not adopted the approach of this bill.”

University of Southern Maine student Shaman Kirkland said the bill “threatens everything that is great about my university. The free exchange of ideas is only able to flourish because students are not worried about students with opposing views becoming violent against them.”

Kirkland also noted that tensions have been high on the USM campus in recent months, from outrage over anti-Muslim graffiti on campus to protests over visits by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst.

“From protests to frat parties, I can think of several situations this year where the presence of a gun could have made an already tense situation escalate into a deadly tragedy,” Kirkland said.

Several other speakers agreed.

“This is a way too dangerous bill to be allowed to pass,” said Peter Michaud, a registered nurse and the lawyer for the Maine Medical Association, which opposes the bill.

The committee will consider the bill in a work session next.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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