Oregon University System sued over campus handgun policy

A pro-Second Amendment foundation has filed a lawsuit challenging the Oregon University System’s ban on handguns, specifically for those with concealed handgun licenses.

The suit was brought forth last month by the Oregon Firearms Educational Foundation and filed by Salem lawyer and former chairman of the Oregon Republican Party Vance Day. Rather than a traditional lawsuit seeking damages, the suit petitions the court to determine the validity of the rule.

If the court strikes down the rule, it would allow those with a license to carry, to pack guns on campus and in classrooms.

The suit specifically challenges the OUS prescribed conduct code, which states that a student can face sanctions for “Possession or use of firearms … unless expressly authorized by law, Board or institutional rules.” It goes on to note that “absence of criminal penalties shall not be considered express authorization.”

According to the Oregon Revised Statutes, carrying a firearm into a public building is a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years and up to $100,000 fine, but an exception is “a person who is licensed under ORS 166.291 and 166.292 to carry a concealed handgun.”

Those statutes allow license holders to legally carry a firearm into any public building in the state, with the exception of airport terminals, courthouses and federal buildings. The statutes also grant sole power to regulate firearms to the state legislature.

The issue came to a head last year, when Western Oregon University student Jeffrey Maxwell was arrested for carrying a concealed handgun on campus.

The county district attorney dropped all criminal charges against him after determining he had broken no laws. Nevertheless, he was still suspended, and later expelled from WOU.

Maxwell, represented by the Oregon War Veterans Association and receiving legal funding from the Oregon Firearms Foundation,
sued WOU.

In June, state representatives Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) and Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) drafted a letter, signed by 32 other representatives, to the chancellor of the State Board of Higher Education asking the OUS to review and revise the handgun policy.

The OUS responded in a letter, writing that it had “multiple and lengthy discussions with the Oregon Department of Justice, legislators and campus officials.” The letter continued, “Fundamentally, though, OUS and the State Board of Higher Education believe that our campuses are safer without firearms.”

Legislators continued to press OUS. Thatcher called the letter a “non-response” and went on to say, “I would hate to see further legal action, but that may be the only remedy for some of the parties at this point.”

Meanwhile, the Maxwell case stalled in court, becoming bogged down and complicated. It was not the result the firearms federation was looking for.

“No matter what the court found, it might have applied to no one else,” said Kevin Starrett, director of OFF, of the federation’s reasons for firing another lawsuit even though the Maxwell case was in court. “The strategy was to attack.”

The lawsuit directly challenging the OUS rule was filed Aug. 7.

“Subject matter aside, right now it’s a matter of law,” Thatcher said in a phone interview. “(The OUS) is in conflict with it. We can talk about changing the law in the legislature, where the power to regulate firearms is vested, but until then, we need OUS to comply with state law.”

For their part, OUS officials steadfastly maintain there is no conflict between state law and their policy.

“We feel that the current law is there to protect students and faculty,” OUS spokesperson Di Saunders said.

The Oregon Department of Justice, which is acting as the defense for the OUS, declined to comment, as the case has moved into litigation. The University administration and the Department of Public Safety also had no comment.

This morning, the State House and Senate judiciary committees held a joint meeting concerning campus safety.

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