Remember back in March, when high school students in several towns across Montana staged marches against gun violence? The marches began a month after 17 students and staffers were shot to death at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
"Many of us gathered here are grieving the loss of not only the Parkland students, but also friends or family members lost to gun violence." That's Amanda Penley speaking at the event in Helena in March, she was a junior at Capital High then. She's a senior this year, and spoke Tuesday at a meeting of the group she helped form.
"Thanks for coming, this is really important work, and we're glad that everyone took time," Penley tells the group.
Forty young people, mostly girls, and five adults showed up. After the meeting I asked Penley how she felt about the turnout.
"I'm really happy with the number we have, and hopefully it'll grow," she says. "Maybe it'll shrink, but we're going to take all the strong, excited, passionate minds we have and focus our strengths in areas that are going to create meaningful – maybe small – but meaningful change."
The group is forming committees focused on communications, finance, events and school policy. There's also a legislative committee, which Penley chairs.
Eric Whitney: You guys haven't faded away?
"Yeah, no, and we don't plan on it," Penley says. "This year we're lucky enough that the [Montana legislative] session is coming up, so we are going to be focusing on legislation. We drafted a bill over the summer that we've been working on, and we met with the bill drafter a couple of weeks ago, so that's exciting."
Penley says they've also met with several state lawmakers from both parties about sponsoring their bill, which they came up with after doing a lot of research on both what pressing gun safety issues are, and what might actually pass in Montana.
"And we found a law in Texas – well, first we found child access prevention laws, which, there are some form enacted in 27 states, and Montana has a very, very weak form of child access prevention laws – and so we found one in Texas that we would like to model a bill after. Which is basically saying that if a parent chooses to negligently store their firearm – so that means leaving it unlocked and loaded in a place easily accessible to their children – and that child gets a hold of that firearm and does something horrible, the parents could be prosecuted under this child access prevention law."
Penley says there are misperceptions about the goals of Helena Youth Against Gun Violence. She says they're not out to take peoples' guns or repeal the Second Amendment, they just want to have a community dialog about how to keep students safe, and to take steps that help prevent gun violence.
"We're not expecting to solve gun violence or end mass shootings, because that's going to be a long process. But we're not on our phones complaining about it, we're meeting here, we talking about it. We're talking to adults, we're talking to people who have expertise in this area, and we want to go slow, but we're taking a step, and I think that's pretty cool."
State Rep. Moffie Funk of Helena says, "I am inspired beyond words by these young people."
Funk came to Tuesday's meeting and has been a close ally of the youth group since they formed.
"They have taken hold of their future, and they are moving it forward with such pragmatism and passion."
Funk says the group is still discussing who they'll get to carry the bill that they're working on, but she thinks it could pass.
"I believe it could, because they're not out to take anybody's guns, they're not out to make people feel less protected. They just want to help people understand the importance of keeping your gun safe, and that it's not a difficult thing to do. You can still have the loaded gun by your bedside, just that when you get up and leave your bed, take it apart."
Helena Youth Against Gun Violence are planning to put a lot of effort into getting their bill signed into law next year, but Amanda Penley says their bigger goal is simply to have a dialog with the local community about what she thinks is a universally shared goal, no matter one's views on the Second Amendment: How to reduce gun violence. And Penley invites people of all opinions to come to their meetings to have a real, face to face dialog, not just the sometimes misinformed dialog she says is happening in the comments section of the IR, the Helena Independent-Record newspaper.
"If you have questions, don't just comment on the IR or on Facebook, work towards finding the answer. Work towards finding a solution. Quit complaining about it on social media and do something, you know," Penley says.