CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia's governor signed a bill Wednesday allowing people with concealed carry permits to take firearms onto public college and university campuses.
"Proud day for me," Republican Gov. Jim Justice said as he signed the bill, surrounded by more than two dozen state lawmakers, members of the National Rifle Association, and the West Virginia Citizens Defense League.
The law will take effect in July 2024. Similar legislation has passed in 11 other states.
Justice said guns have been present on state campuses even without the new law.
"For crying out loud, the doors are wide open," he said. "This is just saying the law-abiding people have a right to be able to carry if they choose to do so. We just hope and pray that there’s never a problem. We can’t ensure in any way that there won’t be a problem."
He wants the law to "send a message to the world, by God , if you want to mess with us, we can mess back."
The signing comes two weeks after a gunman shot and killed three students and injured five others at Michigan State University.
At a public hearing last month at the West Virginia Capitol, nearly all of the 40 people who spoke opposed the bill.
The presidents of West Virginia’s largest institutions of higher learning urged lawmakers to reconsider as the bill moved through the Legislature. They said decisions about whether or not to allow guns on campus should be left to the institutions, and voiced concerns about students struggling with mental health challenges.
West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said Wednesday that the university will form a campus safety group prior to the law’s effective date.
"Today we must come together to focus clearly on what is most important to all of us — keeping our students, faculty, staff, visitors and community members safe while on our campuses," Gee said in a statement. "That has always been, and will remain, our utmost priority."
The bill bans the open carry of a firearm on a college or university campus and allows institutions of higher learning to implement exceptions. It also prohibits people from taking guns into areas with a capacity of more than 1,000 spectators — stadiums for football games, for example — or to on-campus daycare centers.
The bill allows exceptions in rooms where a student or employee disciplinary proceeding is being held. Guns can be restricted in specifically designated areas where patient care or mental health counseling is being provided.
Schools would be permitted to regulate firearms in residence halls, but not in common areas, including lounges, dining areas and study areas. Colleges and universities will be required to provide a secure location for storage of a pistol or revolver in at least one on-campus residence hall or to make safes available in residence rooms, which could come with a fee.