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Helena High School Students Present Gun Safety Bill

A Helena Youth Against Gun Violence meeting, Dec. 5, 2018.
Courtesy Helena Youth Against Gun Violence
A Helena Youth Against Gun Violence meeting, Dec. 5, 2018.

Helena high school students who organized to do something in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting 13 months ago presented a bill to Montana’s House Judiciary Committee at the capitol Tuesday.

"We’re not expert lobbyists, nor are we supporting any particular agenda or organization. We’re just students who saw an issue in our community and decided something needed to be done," says Clara McRae, a senior at Capital High School and co-founder of Helena Youth Against Gun Violence

Their bill has two major components. First, requiring the state school superintendent “to develop and maintain model school district policies for firearms safety education.”

Second, it would create a new criminal offense, “leaving firearm accessible to a child,” which would be punishable by a $1,000 fine if the child’s access to the firearm resulted in serious injury or death.

McRae says the bill was modeled on a law that was enacted in Texas.

She was one of several students who said they know lots of kids learn gun safety at home, but others don’t. McRae said she never had instruction on the topic in school.

"My second-grade class spent a full week discussing fire safety, and another on earthquakes. However, I never learned anything in a classroom environment about being safe around guns."

The Helena Youth group also wants to educate adults, and emphasize the seriousness of the responsibility to control access to guns in the home and elsewhere -- that’s the intent behind the $1,000 fine the bill would impose for failing to do so.

Tyler Penley, a freshman in Helena, testified on that point.

"Last spring I was diagnosed with depression, which has had severe impacts on my well being."

Penley says he’s doing better now, but he’s grateful his parents keep their guns locked up at home.

"It scares me every day to think about what could have happened last year, had I come home to a loaded weapon. A year ago I was not in a state to make rational decisions, and I worry that I could have made a permanent, irreversible mistake."

Fourteen students testified in favor of the bill, as did Registered Nurse Jennifer Buscher, representing Shodair Children’s Hospital in Great Falls, which specializes in child psychiatry.

"I know it’s not lost on you that Montana leads the nation with the highest suiciderates, and that our youth are completing suicide at a rate three times that of the national average."

Buscher said human brains aren’t fully developed until people are into their mid-to-late twenties, and that it takes younger people’s brains longer to override emotions and impulses with logic.

"Today you have the opportunity to delay the time between an emotional response, a child accessing a gun and pulling the trigger. You also have the opportunity to show these youth in the room that you value their voice, and will protect them in the way that they are asking to be protected," Buscher says.

Only two organizations spoke against the Helena Youth group’s bill: The NRA, which says Montana already has laws against criminal and negligent endangerment, and the Montana Shooting Sports Association, represented by Gary Marbut. Marbut opposes both the education strategy in the bill, as well as its second part, criminalizing unsafe gun storage that results in a child causing serious injury or death.

"We think that House Bill 477 is unnecessary, certainly the first section is unnecessary because we have a successful program at work. And the rest of the bill is -- despite what some of the proponents have said, we believe is an infringement on the right to keep and bear arms in Montana."

Marbut said the NRA and Montana Shooting Sports Association both offer gun safety curriculum to Montana schools, but he said school administrators often turn the offers away because they don’t want to talk about guns at all.

Hamilton Republican Theresa Manzella asked the bill’s sponsor, Helena Democrat Moffie Funk, if it would hold adults liable for other peoples’ kids who might find a loaded gun in someone’s purse or home. Funk replied that the bill only applies to guns left in areas where an adult knew or should have known a child would gain access to them. Funk also said the bill exempts kids who access guns for hunting or agriculture purposes under the supervision of someone over age 18.

The House Judiciary Committee took no action on the House Bill 477 Tuesday, but Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas cast doubt on its prospects for passing at a press conference earlier in the day.

"I’d vote against it and make sure it’s killed. That's the last thing we're going to do is go into people's homes and tell them how to take care of their own defense weapons in the houses. This is just inviting in big brother to start invading people's homes and, that's bad legislation, in my opinion."

Further action on the bill brought by Helena Youth Against Gun Violence has not yet been scheduled.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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