University of Alaska turns to legal arsenal to defeat campus carry measure

Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, left, and Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, listen to Hans Rodvik, an intern for Sen. Coghill, speak on Senate Bill 176 during the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Capitol in Juneau, Alaska, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Senate Bill 176, sponsored by Sen. Coghill, would prohibit the university from banning firearms or knifes on its campuses with the exception of restricted areas where visitors are screened.

University officials say their policies prohibiting guns on system campuses are legal and constitutional. The primary backers of a bill to strike down the prohibition say it ain’t so.

The University of Alaska System released a 13-page legal analysis Wednesday defending its gun policy. The Empire received a copy Friday.

The analysis states that lawmakers in Juneau have prohibited municipalities from expanding firearm regulation but have not done the same for the university.

“… Current Regents’ Policy and University Regulation do not conflict with the state constitution on their face or as a matter of law,” the analysis reads.

Staff in the office of Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, disagree with that. Sen. Coghill has introduced SB176, which would allow concealed carry on campus if approved by the Legislature.

“The university is a political subdivision of the state,” said Hans Rodvik, an intern for Coghill who came up with the idea for SB176. “Our constitution specifically says (the individual right to keep and bear arms) ‘shall not be denied or infringed by the state or political subdivision of the state.’”

In prior testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Coghill, University of Alaska President Pat Gamble told lawmakers that universities have similar characteristics to other situations in which the law prohibits firearms.

Alaska law prohibits firearms on elementary, middle and high school campuses — the University of Alaska frequently hosts K-12 students. Alaska law prohibits firearms in bars — liquor is no stranger to college campuses. Concealed carry laws are different for Alaskans under 21 years old — many college students are younger than that benchmark.

“University campuses are complex and contain many sensitive campuses,” the document reads. “They have many of the features of the places where the Alaska legislature has chosen to criminalize firearm possession.”

The document goes on to reference prior court cases that indicate the regulation of firearms on school grounds is an acceptable limitation of the Second Amendment.

In his testimony on Government Hill, Gamble said he’s concerned that students may be able to carry long guns (including assault rifles) to class, and university police may not be able to respond to dangerous situations until it’s too late.

“… the university arguably could not take action in response to possession of weapons by students who are depressed or subject to administrative discipline, troubled employees, or individuals who openly carry weapons in an effort to intimidate faculty or colleagues with whom they have disputes,” the analysis states.

Chad Hutchison, legal counsel for Senate Republicans, said the bill’s backers were “willing to have that conversation” about limiting the scope of campus carry, should SB176 become law.

“We’re not interested in scenarios where kids may feel intimidated by open carry ever,” said Hutchison, a University of Alaska Fairbanks, alumnus. “From the beginning, this has been about concealed carry on campus, and we’re willing to craft language to clarify that.”

Following the bill’s first hearing, the University of Alaska said implementing the campus carry law would require at least $450,000, money that would be used to determine how to protect the K-12 students and others who frequent the campuses.

The analysis submitted last week also states that the university will be held responsible if it “fails to maintain a safe work and learning environment.”

Rodvik replied that the university could be held liable if an incident happened on campus and students were unable to defend themselves because of the restrictive policy.

“The liability issue goes both ways,” he said.

Coghill told the Empire he is reviewing the analysis over the weekend and plans to take it up in committee this week.

• Contact State reporter Matt Woolbright at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com.

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