TN campus weapons bill named after slain UGA student

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A bill aimed at improving college campus safety in Tennessee is now being named after a Georgia student who was murdered this year.

Representative Gino Bulso (R-Brentwood) said he filed HB1909 before Laken Riley’s death captured the nation’s attention. The 22-year-old was killed while out jogging on the University of Georgia campus on Feb. 22, 2024.

“The General Assembly has been for some time working on issues concerning school safety. And often we focus on the kindergarten through 12th grade or pre kindergarten through 12th grade,” Bulso said. “Over the summer, it occurred to me that we also obviously want to do what we can to protect our public colleges and universities.”

He explained that right now the rules for non-lethal weapons vary from one campus to another. This legislation specifies that a public college or university may not prohibit the possession of pepper spray, mace, tear gas, a stun gun, a taser, or other type of electronic control device for self defense.

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“If you were jogging on a university campus, or if you were just walking late at night to the library or back to your dormitory, you could have on your possession, a non-lethal weapon of the type that I’ve described, which oftentimes, now in a delivery system looks much like a pistol,” said Bulso. “You could have a pepper spray pistol or another type of a stun gun that looks very much like a pistol except it’s non lethal. It won’t kill the person that is aimed at. It’ll simply incapacitate them for sufficient time for you to seek other help.”

The most recent data from Tennessee law enforcement shows an increase in assaults on the state’s college campuses. The TBI Crime on Campus report showed assault offenses reported on college and university campuses rose 29.76% year-to-year, going from 504 in 2021 to 654 in 2022.

“This legislation is limited to possession or use of non-lethal weapons for purposes of self defense,” Bulso said. “{The bill} among other things, was to ensure that our colleges and university students in our public colleges and universities across the state would be able to defend themselves with these type of non-lethal weapons should there be an assault on campus.”

Bulso said this only applies to adults on college campuses. The bill was also amended to authorize a public college or university or other public institution of higher education to prohibit the carrying of non-lethal weapons on the grounds of any pre-K-12 school located on its campus.

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“We want to strike a balance between allowing schools that have minors attending them to be in charge of what type of lethal or non-lethal weapons are available to defend the students, the faculty and the staff at those schools,” he explained. “The University of Memphis has a K-12 school on its campus. It’s one of the highest performing schools, if not the highest performing school in the state. And the University of Memphis obviously had a concern that we make sure that we are not in any way, specifying that somebody who’s a K-12 student, although they’re on a college campus, can have access to something like a taser, or stun gun, or a pepper spray gun. And so was through those discussions that we came up with the language that’s in the bill.”

Another amendment authorizes a public college or university or other public institution of higher education to prohibit the carrying of non-lethal weapons in any building where armed security is provided or where such carrying is prohibited by contract.

“For example, at the University of Tennessee, if you’re in Neyland Stadium or Thompson Boling arena you’ve got other types of security, you’ve got armed security, you’ve got magnetometers and other security devices,” Bulso said. “So, we put an exception in the bill that if in fact, you’re dealing with a college, university stadium or arena that already has other types of security that a university could in those instances, prohibit possession of a non-lethal weapon.”

The bill passed the house and senate. It’s placed on the message calendar for Thursday to be named the Laken Riley Act of 2024.

“Just to honor her memory from her savage and brutal murder, we elected to go ahead and name this the Laken Riley Act. Because it does, you know, focus attention on the fact that there are crimes that occur on public colleges and universities. And it was one way of honoring her and her memory.”

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