State high court says gun in car is legal at University of Kentucky

lblackford@herald-leader.comApril 26, 2012 

A University of Kentucky graduate student and employee was wrongfully fired for having a gun in his car, the Supreme Court of Kentucky has ruled.

In its decision released Thursday, the justices said students and staff at Kentucky's public universities may keep guns and other deadly weapons in a car, but the schools may continue to regulate them elsewhere on campus.

The ruling reversed a Fayette Circuit Court decision that upheld Michael Mitchell's firing after police searched his car and found a gun on UK property. The case now returns to circuit court.

It started in 2009, when Mitchell was an anesthesia technician and graduate student at UK. Some of Mitchell's co-workers reported that he had a gun in his locker at work. Mitchell told UK police officers that he had a concealed-carry license and kept a semi-automatic pistol in his car, which was parked at Commonwealth Stadium.

UK then fired Mitchell for violating its policy prohibiting firearms on UK property.

Mitchell filed suit, saying his firing violated the state and federal right to bear arms. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of UK, and Mitchell appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The justices said the case presented two conflicting issues: the right to bear arms versus UK's right to prevent them on campus. In the end, a majority of justices concluded that the conflict had to be resolved in favor of the intent of the Kentucky General Assembly.

"We base this on the General Assembly's explicit statement that the concealed-carry licensing statute is to be liberally construed in favor of the right to bear arms, as well as the legislature's clearly expressed policy of exempting a person's vehicle from firearms regulation," the decision said.

Justice Wil Schroder, 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."

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 his client, who now attends medical school in the West Indies, was "ecstatic."

"We're really pleased with the ruling and we hope the next steps will be taken to get this resolved," Hunt said.

He called the decision "a win for folks who want a free exercise of their constitutional rights to self-defense."

Joe Monroe, chief of the UK Police Department, expressed disappointment in the ruling, and said the university would review it.

"Our top priority is to protect the safety of students, faculty and staff at UK," he said in a statement. "We are concerned about anything that potentially limits the options police have in safeguarding the campus."

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."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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