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Capitol Talk: Satanism enters the chat and it's déjà vu on gun laws

Congressional opponents of a ban on assault weapons, including Montana Sen. Jon Tester, aren't swayed by another school shooting. Neither are many state legislators, who want to expand, not limit, gun rights in Montana. A reference to Satanism prompts a walkout in a Senate committee hearing. And wilderness schools for troubled teens are once again in the legislative spotlight

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk: Rob, another week, another mass shooting with an assault rifle, and this time at a school in Tennessee. And again, the calls for a ban on assault weapons get louder. And again, there seems to be no chance Congress will pass such a ban. And among those opposed to a ban are Montana's entire congressional delegation, including Democratic Senator Jon Tester.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, right, Sally. And certainly no surprise that the Republicans are opposed to it and really no surprise that Tester is opposed to it either. It just reflects the politics of the situation. He's a Democrat in a red state, and he's on the ballot this cycle. Of course, there's lots of polling evidence suggesting that Americans strongly favor various gun control measures. Now, support in Montana is going to be a good bit lower than national numbers would reflect. But still, I think there is a lot of support out there for certain types of gun control. The problem is with the intensity of that support, the pro-gun people have a high level of intensity. And on the flip side, for the gun-control folks, the pattern we've seen is that while there is always a lot of intensity right in the immediate aftermaths of these horrific events, like we saw in Nashville this week, it dissipates and it dissipates fairly quickly. So while it's true that there are clear majorities supporting gun control, and while majorities certainly matter in American politics, intensity matters a lot, too. And throughout American history, in fact, intense and organized minorities have routinely had an outsized influence. And the pro-gun types have been very intense and very organized in a way the gun-control people just never have been able to match. And of course, the Second Amendment devotees are even more intense and more organized in states like Montana. So, that just goes a long way to explaining Tester's position on this issue, which, by the way, is quite similar to a lot of other successful Montana Democrats in the recent past, folks like Max Baucus, Brian Schweitzer, Steve Bullock.

Sally Mauk: But those who support a ban on assault weapons, Rob, wonder what it will take for senators like Tester to change their mind. Is there a breaking point or not?

Rob Saldin: Well, I don't know. If there is one, we sure haven't seen it yet. And I just don't see any reason to think that Tester's base is going to go, you know, 'enough is enough' on him. Partly that's because of the intensity dynamic I just mentioned. But also because enough of them know that the alternative to Tester isn't some progressive gun-control crusader. The alternative is Matt Rosendale or someone like that. And so, obviously, this is just super frustrating for people who see these things happen again and again and nothing seems to happen. Although, there was a gun control measure passed not too long ago in Congress, the first action in that space in a long time. But it only goes so far. But what, again, is really missing is that intensity and the gun control people just aren't quite able to match that.

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Sally Mauk: Meanwhile, Holly, the House Judiciary Committee this week passed three bills that would require changes to the state Constitution. And two of those bills have to do with giving gun owners more, not fewer, rights.

Holly Michels: Yeah, we did see a fair amount of referendums clear that committee and like you said, there are some related to firearms. One of those is House Bill 517, which is from Missoula Republican Representative Mike Hopkins, which is a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to enact laws that would require the Board of Regents to adopt policies that would protect constitutional rights on campuses. That all comes out of a bill from last session that got stalled partially in court when it comes to firearms on college campuses. Well, courts let part of the bill advance. They ended up doing an injunction on part that would have allowed for concealed carry on campuses. And they said that was because the Legislature didn't have power to tell the regents how to handle that. So this referendum from Hopkins would change the state Constitution if it passes the Legislature and is approved by voters to give the Legislature that power.

And then going back to the other referendum, and also looking back at last session, that same bill that was partially stalled did allow for legalizing concealed carry firearms across a lot more places in the state than before. That part of the law did stay standing. But even with that, we have a referendum this session for Representative Casey Knudsen, who's a Malta Republican. That's House Bill 551 and it would actually put the right to carry concealed firearms into the state Constitution. Supporters say even though we have the 2021 law that still stands, this would just strengthen the rights to concealed carry.

And just to remind people what referendums are, they need 100 votes between the House and Senate to clear the Legislature. There are 102 Republicans with a supermajority. So if Republicans vote as a block, they can move those without Democratic support. And then those would go on the 2024 general election ballot. So voters are the ultimate deciders of those.

Sally Mauk: There was some high drama this week, Holly, in the Senate Judiciary Committee when some Democratic members walked out of a hearing on some bills to restrict abortion. And Billings Senator Jen Gross objected to some of the testimony, especially when a Republican member connected abortion to satanism, and that led to this exchange between Gross and committee chair Keith Regier.

Keith Regier: Senator Gross, We, nobody, nobody interrupted opponents when all they talked about was religion. Don't interrupt the senator.

Jen Gross: I don't understand how satanism is relevant to this bill or this discussion today.

Keith Regier: Let's find out.

Sally Mauk: And with that, Holly, Gross and her Democratic colleagues walked out of the committee hearing.

Democratic lawmakers walked out of committee in protest on Tuesday during debate over proposed restrictions on abortion access.

Holly Michels: Yeah, it was a pretty intense hearing. And I think it's fair to say we've had a lot of intense hearings over abortion bills this session and this kind of followed that same mode we've seen, but to a much higher degree of conflict. The debate was about a bill that would ban the most commonly used abortion procedure in the second trimester of pregnancy. And this is legislation that's already cleared the House. So this is the second time we've had hearings with opportunities for public comment. And during that period, the debate became as much about how to talk about the legislation and actually hold the exchanges of ideas than it was about the policy that the bill would enact.

You know, the procedure, the bill describes it as barbaric. And we heard a lot of graphic testimony along those lines from people who support the bill. But we heard doctors say that this is a safe procedure at this point in pregnancy and that it's pretty rare and mostly done in the case of pretty tragic pregnancy outcomes. So a lot of emotion around this.

And already before that exchange we just heard between Gross and Regier, we had a number of objections from Democratic members of the committee who said they felt testimony strayed too far from the content of the legislation. So, it's fair to say that, I think, there's already some tension between Gross and Regier before we got to this point.

Once we got to this, what happened is Senator Daniel Emrich, a Great Falls Republican, had asked a question about satanism and abortions and tied it to human sacrifice. And that's what brought Gross to object again. Like we heard, she said she didn't see how it was related to the bill. Regier pointed out he felt opponents were able to speak without interruption. And we had Senator Andrea Olsen, a Missoula Democrat, interject, saying lawmakers represent people who follow broad swaths of religions that have pretty differing views on access to abortion, and that she had concerns about the tone of the discussion. And that was a point when Jen Gross suggested that Democrats leave the committee hearing. And eventually all the Democratic members did get up and go.

After the hearing, there was a meeting between lawmakers to discuss how things went, because they had two more abortion bills to debate right after this. MTPR's Shaylee Rager sat in on that hearing and heard them not really come to any resolution, but they did get through the rest of the hearings. And Democrats came back into the room and avoided similar hiccups.

Sally Mauk: Rob, this incident has fueled debate about what is, or is not, proper decorum in a hearing or during floor debate. Should there be any limits on what people say? And if so, what should those limits be?

Rob Saldin: Well, you know, Sally, it's hard to come up with formal rules for this kind of thing. This is more appropriate for a norm where people just abide by certain expectations of behavior. Once you start trying to make rules around that, you know, it falls apart and it's easy to find loopholes and whatnot.

Another thing going on here, and Holly, you alluded to this, you know, even by the standards of today, abortion is just a particularly divisive issue on which emotions run high. So, I do think that's part of it. But the other thing is just that there are so many incentives in our political culture today that push against decorum and encourage and reward ratcheting things up and appealing to things like satanism and whatnot. And that's obviously not limited to the Montana State Legislature or even to politics. It's a broader cultural dynamic in American society. It's not always entirely obvious what to do about it, because that's the type of thing that traditionally has been governed, not by formal rules, but by norms.

A group of Montanans filled the Capitol rotunda to rally against legislation targeting LGBTQ people. Those bills are advancing and could cost the state billions.

Sally Mauk: Holly, one of the rare bills to have bipartisan support in this session is House Bill 218, which aims to increase oversight of so-called wilderness schools for troubled teenagers. And the bill sailed through the House, but now Republican Senator Brad Molnar is proposing an amendment that could scuttle the bill.

Holly Michels: Yeah, this is an issue that one of our reporters, Seaborn Larson, has followed for years now, and it comes on the heels of, in 2019 there was a pretty major bill that passed to address some of the biggest problems with these facilities. That legislation was watered down a bit to make it palatable enough to pass. But now, this session we have a bill from Representative Laura Smith, a Helena Democrat, who's attempting to get at some of the lingering problems that have still let things like abusive kids or even the suicide of one resident slip through the cracks.

One of the things that Smith's bill would do is let kids have unmonitored phone and video calls with their parents. And that's something former residents say would give students an opportunity to report things like forced labor or sexual abuse or other problems. But like you said, Sally, things have stalled out now over an amendment proposed by Senator Brad Molnar, a Republican from Laurel. He wants to bring a change to the bill that would actually end up recording all of those calls with parents instead of making them confidential. And Molnar is saying he thinks that's because those calls could be to people besides kids' parents and be used as an avenue to maybe get drugs smuggled into facilities or other inappropriate things. Smith has countered that framing by saying this is a parental rights issue, parents should be free to speak with their children privately. But right now we're just hung up. The bill is sort of paused, the amendment is hanging out there. Right now, lawmakers are dealing with a transmittal deadline. So they're really focused on bills that need to clear their initial chamber. And this bill's already done that. So it's got a little bit of time still. I think we can expect legislators to pick this up when they have more capacity. But right now, it's just not really going anywhere.

Sally Mauk: Well, Rob, the number of these schools operating in Montana is less than half of what it was before the state got serious about oversight. And that's pretty telling, isn't it?

Rob Saldin: Yeah. You know, Sally, for some time there was just very little in the way of regulation over these schools. And of course, in contrast to our usual conception of a school, these wilderness schools are typically remote and very isolated. And indeed, that's central to their whole identity and what they see as their reason for being. But this does come with an increase in the likelihood that things could go on at these places that would escape attention. And as Holly noted, there have been some clear instances of that. And of course, in response to that, as Holly noted as well, there was that 2019 law that tried to tamp down on some of that. And at the time, you're right Sally, there were 16 of these schools. Now there are just seven. So over half have shut down operations. And certainly one interpretation of that would be that these schools did not like operating under those new restrictions or felt like they were unable to do so.

Sally Mauk: Well, there's lots still to be debated in this session, but it is April, so the end is in sight. Holly and Rob, thank you and I'll talk to you next week.

Holly Michels: Thanks, Sally.

Rob Saldin: Thank you, Sally

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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