Missouri lawmakers are moving ahead with a sweeping plan to allow concealed weapons in college buildings, churches, daycare facilities and bars just days after students marched for stricter regulations in the wake of the Florida school shooting.
The bill extends the list of places where gun owners — with or without a concealed carry permit — can take a concealed weapon. Rep. Deb Lavender, a Kirkwood Democrat, said it allows them to carry firearms "truly everywhere."
"We call it the guns everywhere bill — schools, churches, bars, college campuses," Lavender said.
Under the bill, permit holders also could carry guns within 25 feet of election polling places and into casinos, amusement parks, governmental meetings and hospitals. Among those, private businesses could choose to prohibit guns and display a sign notifying visitors.
But the bill specifically prohibits colleges and universities from having gun-free policies.
It passed a House rules committee Wednesday and could be brought up for debate on the House floor if the chamber's Republican leadership allows it. Leadership did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The problem right now is our gun-free zones where people aren't allowed to carry guns, and this is what this tries to defeat," said Rep. Shawn Rhoads, a West Plains Republican and chair of the House Rules and Legislative Oversight Committee, which backed the bill 8-3.
Rhoads and supporters of the measure argue that law-abiding citizens should be able to carry their guns to protect themselves and deter criminals.
"If I know that I'm going to commit a crime on a college campus and I plan this out but I don't know who's there carrying a gun or not, I'm probably going to think twice," Rhoads said. "But if I know for a fact that no one on that campus is allowed to carry a gun, then I have a soft target, and I am able to do exactly what I want to do within there."
Rep. Jered Taylor, a Nixa Republican who sponsored the bill, stressed that private business owners would be allowed to choose whether to permit guns on their property. Colleges and universities, however, would be required to allow guns as tax-payer funded organizations, he said. Right now, Missouri colleges can choose to do so, but they haven't.
"Not a single one allows (concealed carry weapons) permit holders, and we've seen a dramatic increase in college campuses of sexual assault," Taylor said.
He cited a study of nine colleges by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that concluded that one in five female respondents experienced some type of sexual assault during college.
"My thought is let's give those women the ability to defend themselves if they so desire," Taylor said.
Paul Wagner, executive director of the state's Council on Public Higher Education, said public safety departments at the state's 13 public four-year universities tell administrators that guns would not make campuses safer. The council is made up of the universities' presidents and chancellors.
"In terms of sexual assault and sexual violence, the instance of someone jumping out of a bush and attacking someone is not common," Wagner said.
The vast majority of assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, according to the National Institute of Justice.
The bill's opponents argue that a proliferation of gun carrying won't make people safer.
"I'm sorry. The more guns you have, the more accidents you're having or situations you're going to have," Lavender said.
Kristin Bowen, a local leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she was concerned about seeing more guns in Columbia because it's a college town, but she noted that campuses may not be the only place where guns become more prevalent.
"As a resident of a college town, the idea of alcohol and guns mixing is just a disaster to me," Bowen said.
Kansas allows guns on college campuses, but only those older than 21 are permitted to carry concealed firearms. This fall, a gun was found unattended in a bathroom at the University of Kansas.
Debate over concealed carry in Missouri comes just days after thousands of students marched in hundreds of demonstrations across the country supporting gun regulation. Calls for some gun-control measures have grown louder in the wake of the shooting that claimed 17 lives at a Parkland, Fla., high school.
"I think it just shows a tone deafness to what's happening in our nation right now regarding guns," Lavender said.