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Ban on Ky. college 'gun free zones' added to unrelated bill advances

Kentucky Rep. Savannah Maddox campaigns for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial nomination during Fancy Farm 2022.
Roberto Roldan
Kentucky Rep. Savannah Maddox campaigns for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial nomination during Fancy Farm 2022.

A bill banning college “gun free zones” in Kentucky passed out of a legislative committee. It was a last-minute addition to an unrelated piece of legislation.

Kentucky colleges and universities wouldn’t be able to ban concealed guns from campus buildings under a surprise bill advanced by state lawmakers Tuesday.

House Bill 542 originally included language tweaking two words in a workforce development policy, but during a committee meeting Tuesday morning, Dry Ridge Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox swapped in a new version of the proposal that would allow people to concealed carry weapons at any building occupied by a state postsecondary institution.

Kentucky currently bans firearms from school property.

The bill is unanimously opposed by the presidents of Kentucky’s state universities and all campus police chiefs. It passed out of the House Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection with a vote of 16-3.

Maddox argued that allowing people to carry concealed weapons would make campuses safer.

“Gun free zones do not work, time and again we see this. All they manage to do is to create an attractive nuisance for criminals who prey on innocent victims and destroy lives,” she said.

But research shows that policies that allow guns to be carried on campuses don’t prevent mass shootings, and they can lead to more shootings, homicides and suicides.

Maddox is a conservative lawmaker who sponsored Kentucky’s 2019 law allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a license or training. She gained prominence during protests to pandemic safety policies and was a candidate in the 2023 race for governor, but withdrew in December.

Mitch Walker, police chief at Western Kentucky University, said he was concerned people carrying firearms on campus wouldn’t have enough training or store weapons safely.

“We believe it will make it a much more unsafe environment for our students, faculty and staff,” he said.

Travis Powell, general counsel of the council of postsecondary education, said the policy would hurt schools’ ability to keep campuses safe.

“Current legislation allows campuses to restrict the carry of deadly weapons, and given that option all campuses have chosen to do so and want to maintain that flexibility,” he said.

Though the deadline for lawmakers to file bills passed nearly two weeks ago, Maddox was able to introduce the new legislation by co-opting a “shell bill.” The process involves filing a bill that includes minor tweaks to state law, and then replacing the entirety of the bill’s language with unrelated legislation.

In the case of HB 542, the bill’s original language would have merely replaced two words in a workforce development law with synonyms: “prepare” for “equip” and “hinder” for “stifle.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski criticized Maddox for filing the bill with little notice.

“I think it’s hard for the community to accept that you’re open about the process,” she said.

Several gun safety advocates showed up to the committee hearing to oppose the legislation.

Brenda Rosen, executive director of the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said she was “gravely concerned” about the bill.

“We need to do more to help our students. Help them to prepare and sustain and maintain themselves on college campuses. And keep guns off campus, where they are not needed,” she said.

Rep. Bill Wesley, a Republican from Ravenna, voted in favor of the bill.

“I believe these students, that is responsible students or adults, that is paying for their college education, they have a right to defend themselves,” he said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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