FARGO — As controversial gun bills start winding their way through the North Dakota Legislature, one bill that would allow concealed carry permit holders to bring guns onto school property and to public gatherings has school officials up in arms.

Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, said a bill he introduced that would let 18-year-old students and other concealed carry permit holders have guns in public buildings came up in a committee hearing Thursday, Jan. 17.

No action was taken in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is hearing most of the gun bills this session, but Ertelt said he was asked about his bill in the hearing and said he was willing to make an amendment to allow school boards to make the final decisions on whether guns would be allowed on their property.

Currently, it's a Class B misdemeanor to possess a gun at a public gathering, which means an athletic or sporting event, a school, a church or a publicly owned or operated building. There are exceptions already to that law, for example, if a person is a law enforcement officer, an on-duty National Guard member or attending such events as a gun show or a hunter safety class.

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Fargo School Board member Robin Nelson has sent a letter to all legislators expressing opposition to Ertelt's bill.

In her letter, Nelson said if the bill, HB 1325, is passed it would allow 18-year-old seniors to bring guns to school. She said the Fargo School Board was "gravely concerned" if that were to occur.

"We strongly feel this bill exposes students, employees and those attending after-school activities to potentially dangerous situations," she wrote.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck
Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck

In an interview Thursday, Nelson added, "We need some savvy people to watch these bills and do some cross-referencing, otherwise it would have sneaked through."

Nelson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of the Red River Valley and Fargo Youth Commission, said if the bill is approved, she's been told by her insurance carrier that they would lose their liability insurance for the 600 youth who are in before-school, after-school and summer youth programs at elementary schools in Fargo.

Also weighing in on the gun proposal was the North Dakota School Boards Association Executive Director Alexis Baxley, who said the group "strongly opposes" the bill. She said in an email memo that it would "significantly restrict our districts' ability to keep students safe from potential harm."

She said it would allow a student, visitor or staff member who has a concealed carry permit to bring a gun inside the school or in their vehicles in the parking lots. "This could lead to a significant increase of firearms on school property, which increases the likelihood that someone may use a firearm to inflict harm on students and school staff," Baxley wrote.

Another major school group is also voicing strong opposition. Testifying against the bill Thursday in the committee was Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the statewide union representing educators and other public employees, who said the bill would clearly allow 18-year-olds with permits to possess guns in schools.

Archuleta said there have been several gun bills introduced in the past few sessions, but that a "common theme is that the Legislature has taken care to ensure the safety of students and educators in their shared learning and working space."

He was worried the bill would undo "the work to ensure school safety so carefully done by previous legislative actions."

Ertelt, in further discussing the bill, wasn't backing down on the measure and said letting school boards make the final decision on guns on school property would be similar to a current law that allows guns in churches, if the leader of the church approves.

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, who's co-sponsoring the bill, said he has another bill, HB 1310, that's similar but would require a person to be 21 or older with shooting proficiency to be allowed to carry concealed guns at schools and public gatherings. He said the gun carrier would need what's known as a Class 1 permit. Baxley said her organization also is against HB 1310.

When asked if he would continue his support of Ertelt's bill after the school officials' uproar, Becker said he would have to "give it some thought" and look into it further.