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Judge upholds gun ban on University of Missouri campuses

A Boone County circuit judge held that the University of Missouri’s on-campus gun rules meet constitutional muster.

In a Nov. 18 ruling, Judge Jeff Harris said the school’s longstanding rules, which generally prohibit the possession of firearms on university property, survive strict scrutiny under the Missouri Constitution.

“The University adduced ample evidence at trial demonstrating that it has a compelling interest in the safety and welfare of students, employees and visitors on its property, and even the Attorney General acknowledges that the University has a compelling interest ‘in ensuring public safety and reducing firearm-related crime,’” Harris wrote in his 31-page judgment.

In a statement, Christian Basi, a spokesman for the UM System, praised the ruling.

“The University vigorously supports the Second Amendment, and we are pleased that the court found the firearm policy constitutional,” he wrote in an email. “The safety of our universities is among our highest priorities; we believe the court’s decision serves the best interests of our students, staff, faculty members and others who spend time on campus. This policy has worked well for decades to support safe environments for all to learn, live and work together to carry out our higher education mission.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which had contested the ban, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The case began in 2015 when an MU law professor, Royce de R. Barondes, alleged that the university’s rules violated the gun-rights provision of the state constitution. Under amendments that voters passed in 2014, Article I, Section 23 says Missourians’ right to keep and bear arms is “unalienable” and that courts must use strict scrutiny when reviewing potential restrictions.

Barondes argued that the rules prevented him not only from carrying a concealed weapon on campus but also barred him from keeping his gun in his car while it was parked in a campus-owned parking garage.

Barondes himself was dismissed from the case last year, leaving the state of Missouri, represented by the attorney general’s office, to continue the constitutional challenge. Barondes declined to be interviewed about the ruling.

Harris largely based his ruling on testimony from two law enforcement officers, MU Police Chief Doug Schwandt and Chief Dan Freet of the University of Missouri-St. Louis police department. Both testified in support of the campus gun ban, saying they feared an increase in crime, accidental shootings and suicides if it were to be overturned. Schwandt, Harris cited in his finding of fact, testified that “allowing guns on the campus in any fashion will increase the chances of all kinds of situations happening.”

Harris also cited two statisticians — one brought in by MU, the other by the attorney general’s office — who said violent crime had increased at colleges that started allowing firearms on campus, even if  possession was limited to being stored in the trunk of a car. (The state’s expert had argued that the increases weren’t statistically significant, and that police presence had a bigger effect on public safety.) Mun Choi, the MU System president, also testified that the rule makes people feel safe and secure on campus and creates a positive learning environment.

The Missouri Supreme Court has not precisely defined how the constitution’s “strict scrutiny” analysis applies to gun rights. In a 2015 case, State v. Merritt, the court said it “depends on context, including the controlling facts, the reasons advanced by the government, relevant differences, and the fundamental right involved.”

Harris said the MU rule “satisfies strict scrutiny review regardless of what constitutes ‘strict scrutiny.’” The university, he found, clearly had a compelling interest in campus safety. And although the rule makes no exceptions for conceal-carry permit holders or university employees, it still is narrowly tailored, Harris said. In part, he wrote, that’s because even the attorney general’s evidence suggested crime could rise if guns were allowed on campus. Also, the judge found, the rule is easy to administer and helps campus police do their jobs.

“The police know immediately that if they see a firearm on campus, the firearm is not supposed to be there,” Harris wrote.

The case is State of Missouri v. Choi et al., 16BA-CV03144.

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