LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Students and staff members at Kentucky universities may keep guns and other deadly weapons in a car, but the schools may continue to regulate them elsewhere on campus, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The high court in Frankfort found that while two Kentucky laws conflict on the issue, lawmakers "expressed a strong public policy" in favor of exempting a person's vehicle from the restrictions on deadly weapons on campus.
Under Kentucky law, universities have a right to control the possession of deadly weapons on property under their control. Another law allows concealed weapons permit carriers to store the weapon in a vehicle's glove compartment.
Justice Wil Schroeder, writing for the court, said the law is "clear and unambiguous."
"It forbids a public organization, such as a university, from prohibiting the possession of a firearm in the glove compartment of a vehicle," Schroeder wrote. "There can be no other reasonable interpretation of the statutory language."
The decision came in the case of University of Kentucky graduate student and anesthesia technician Michael Mitchell, who lost his job in 2009 after campus police found a semi-automatic pistol in his car. The issue arose when other students told campus security that Mitchell had a gun in his locker on campus. Mitchell showed officers the gun in his car and was fired several days later.
Mitchell, who has a concealed weapons permit, sued the university claiming he was wrongfully fired for having the gun in his car. Mitchell has said he had the gun both in his glove compartment and in the center armrest of the car.
Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, joined by Chief Justice John D. Minton, "very reluctantly" agreed with the conclusion, but took issue with the court's logic. Abramson wrote that the conflicting laws and the court's ruling could leave universities powerless and potentially subject to lawsuits from students if it seeks to rid the parking lots of guns stored in unlocked cars.
"That result strikes me, as I am sure it will strike many parents, as an affront to common sense," Abramson wrote. "It certainly is a radical departure from the long practice in this Commonwealth of allowing universities and other institutions of post-secondary education to decide for themselves how to best safeguard their students."
Mitchell's attorney, Christopher Hunt of Lexington, said the ruling vindicated Mitchell's right to carry a weapon while still leaving the university a measure of control over where it is acceptable to have a concealed weapon.
"If you wanted to protect yourself, you can't leave your house with the firearm and go to the University of Kentucky without putting your academic career or job in jeopardy," Hunt told The Associated Press. "There's still plenty of places the university says you can't bring a firearm. We're not talking about dorm rooms or classrooms."
David Thompson, a National Rifle Association attorney with Cooper & Kirk in Washington, D.C., described the ruling as an "important victory for gun owners in Kentucky." Thompson said the ruling appears to allow gun owners to carry weapons in almost any part of the vehicle.
"If you're prohibited from carrying a firearm in a car, your rights are significantly curtailed," Thompson said. "There is a right to keep a firearm in one's car."
Jay Blanton, a spokesman for the University of Kentucky, said school officials were reviewing the ruling, but couldn't comment "at this juncture on its impact or our course of action yet."
The case drew briefs from the NRA supporting Mitchell and from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and seven other state universities, backing the University of Kentucky. Since filing the case, Mitchell has graduated from the University of Kentucky and moved on to Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica, West Indies.
"He's doing well," Hunt said. "It's been a pretty long haul for him."
Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine ruled in favor of the university and upheld Mitchell's dismissal. The high court reinstated Mitchell's suit and sent it back to Fayette Circuit Court for further proceedings.
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