January 29, 2008

Fired up: Will the campus gun bill stay loaded?

State Rep. Robert Damron believes his campus gun bill can help protect you if you work on, visit or attend a college campus. “God forbid, but what if something happens on a campus,” the Nicholasville Democrat said in a recent phone interview. “They can’t protect you.” The ominous something Damron is forewarning is the potential for the next loser that mommy didn’t cuddle enough who decides to carry a weapon into a shopping mall, workplace or school to indiscriminately murder as many strangers as possible. Even the staunchest liberal has anxiety over that possibility, even though it is statistically remote. Presently, Kentucky law allows universities to ban firearms on their campuses. From UK to Centre College, university officials have publicly opposed House Bill 114, which would allow a person to keep a firearm — and use it if he feels threatened — in his vehicle while parked on campus property. “We like our current policy,” said University of Louisville spokesperson John Drees. He said that forbidding guns on campus is the best way to ensure student safety, acknowledging also that it is an imperfect solution. Drees said that allowing students to have firearms on campus couldn’t guarantee the prevention of a tragedy like the Virginia Tech massacre. However, adding guns to a place punctuated by contentious student debate is enough cause for prudence. “Tempers flare up, and the safest thing is to keep weapons off campus,” Drees said.Damron claimed his bill is measured against that possibility. “It doesn’t put guns in classrooms or dormitories,” he said in a phone interview. “It just allows you to have a firearm in your car, in a parking lot.” How open and free will speech be if you’re worried about your opponent running to the parking lot? Damron’s self-defense talking points have succeeded before. In 1996, he spearheaded the concealed-weapons bill that gave law-abiding citizens the right to carry legal firearms. That’s why, Damron boasted, he has 63 co-sponsors and is confident he will get at least 80 votes for this bill. The contentious legislation has also ignited a nasty war of words with the one legislator who could help move Damron’s bill along, Rep. Kathy Stein, a Lexington Democrat and chairwoman of the judiciary committee. Stein has repeatedly said she will not even bring up Damron’s campus gun bill in committee. In return, Damron has called her “gun-control Sally.” Stein said that allowing people to keep guns in their cars would not protect anyone. “How will the bill stop situations such as Virginia Tech?” she asked. “The General Assembly doesn’t need to get into the business of safety management.” Stein pointed out that Damron’s concealed-and-carry bill explicitly left Kentucky colleges and universities to make their own policies. To her, Damron’s current initiative is covered with the fingerprints of National Rifle Association lobbyists. “His demagoguery to the NRA is unacceptable,” she said.For Stein, this spat has reached its boiling point. “Dammit, we’re dealing with a recession that affects post-secondary education,” she said. “There are a lot of important issues without us trying to set a damn fire with this gun bill. This is foolish.”Damron and Stein have different outlooks about both the bill’s future and where House leadership stands on the subject. Damron has given up on the idea of a discharge petition that would take the bill directly to the House floor, but said Stein’s opposition is inconsequential if House leadership supports moving the bill to another committee. He also said that House Speaker Jody Richards reviewed the bill and supports the legislation, which is contrary to previous comments made by the Speaker. “He (Jody Richards) told me personally he supports the bill,” Damron said. Richards told LEO Monday that Damron is basing his comments on a private conversation the two had, and that he’s taken what Richards said out of context. Meanwhile, Richards — a longtime supporter both of gun rights and universities’ ability to determine their own policies — is staying mum. “I think Rep. Stein is an excellent committee chair,” he said, adding that his only initiative now is to wait and see what emerges from her committee. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com

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