By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Idaho lawmakers on Thursday approved a measure allowing concealed guns to be carried onto university and college campuses.
The legislation, which cleared the state House of Representatives by a 50-19 vote and was overwhelmingly approved by the state Senate last month, now heads to Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter for his signature.
If the Republican governor signs the bill into law as expected, Idaho will be the seventh U.S. state that allows guns on college campuses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The passage of the Idaho bill comes amid a tense debate on the extent of gun ownership restrictions in the United States, which has seen a string of recent shootings at schools, movie theaters and other public places.
Under the legislation, those who gain a so-called enhanced concealed-carry permit in Idaho can carry firearms on campus except in such places as residence halls and public entertainment facilities like football stadiums.
Anyone who passes an eight-hour gun training course provided by a National Rifle Association instructor would be eligible to apply for the permit.
The bill ignited controversy in the weeks leading to its approval by the legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 4-1.
Presidents and faculty of Idaho's leading universities strongly opposed the measure, as did the police chief in Boise, Idaho's capital city and home to Boise State University.
But Republican lawmakers sponsoring the legislation and the Idaho Sheriffs' Association supporting it argued that it would enhance campus safety and bolster gun rights spelled out in the U.S. constitution.
Boise State University President Bob Kustra fought to see the bill defeated, claiming it would endanger college-age students as well as younger students who visit the school.
He noted that weapons are not allowed in Idaho's elementary, middle and high schools. "Yet children of these same ages are frequently on Boise State's campus and cannot be kept separate from where guns would now be permitted," he said in a statement.
Ryan Zollman, an Idaho sheriff who spoke in support of the measure on behalf of the state sheriffs' association, said allowing guns on campus would "allow the preservation and protection of our Second Amendment rights."
"I oftentimes fear that if you start restricting one thing at a time, like where you can carry guns, there will be a next step and a next step to the point where you're not allowed to pack guns anywhere at any time," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Lisa Shumaker)