No one in Montana’s Democratic U.S. House primary wants to go off at half-cocked on gun control.
Three months after a high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, prompted national outrage over Congressional inaction on gun violence, candidates are treading cautiously when addressing gun control and the Second Amendment.
Among the contenders in this race, Grant Kier, of Missoula, and John Heenan, of Billings, see a need to address the mass shootings that have become near-monthly tragedies. However both stop short of limiting assault-style weapons. Bozeman’s Kathleen Williams disagrees, arguing that a limiting use on semiautomatic assault-style weapons is a small price for keeping public school children safe.
Those three candidates have the six-figure campaign funds necessary to get their message out using advertising and paid staff. All three have ads up heading into the second week of May, with absentee ballots being mailed to voters Friday.
The remaining candidates are Jared Pettinato and John Meyer, who have raised less than $60,000 combined. In an email last month to The Gazette, Meyer said he has raised $25. A sixth candidate, Lynda Moss of Billings, ended her campaign last week, citing a shortage of cash, but will remain on the ballot.
“I really feel like the fundamental role of government is to balance, or to protect people’s freedom, and their safety,” Kier told Lee Montana. “I think there’s no issue around which there’s greater tension in getting that balance right than on guns and gun ownership in a country where gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment. For some people, they see some forms of gun ownership as a threat to their safety, and other people see it as the vehicle through which they protect their safety.”
This morning I marched in solidarity at the #MarchForOurLives rally in Missoula with my wife and daughter. Across the country, young adults are looking for elected officials to start the conversation about gun violence in America, and we mustn't let them down.#mtpol #mtal pic.twitter.com/DQvbWgYCsY— Grant Kier (@KierForCongress) March 24, 2018
In October, when a gunman killed nearly 60 people at a Las Vegas concert, Kier called for an end to bump stocks, an after-market accessory that in that massacre made semiautomatic assault-style rifles fire like an automatic machine gun. Since then, Kier has said he supports repealing the Dickey Amendment, which in 1996 stopped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researching gun-related deaths. He also wants to expand universal background checks, to include gun shows and online gun sales.
Montana should also submit information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Kier said. The state does not feed information into NICS.
Heenan’s approach is similar to Kier's. The Billings attorney has had painful conversations with his children about what it means to be a kid in the nearly 20-year era of public school mass shootings.
“My oldest daughter who is a freshman in high school made a comment to me after Parkland," Heenan said. "‘You know dad, you’ve got to understand that my entire career of going to school and my fellow students’ entire career is under the threat that somebody is going to do harm to us.'"
“I don’t think it’s either/or," he said. "Montana is a state that values the Second Amendment, values our Constitutional right to own and possess firearms, but we’re also parents and grandparents, and we don’t want harm done to our children, to anybody. I see this as a dark money issue. The reason we can’t have common sense prevail is because politicians are beholden to the gun lobby. Our current congressman is one of them.”
Heenan said the focus needs to be on keeping guns out of the hands of people who are harmful to others or themselves. Expanding background checks is part of the solution, he said, but society needs to become better at reading the warning signs of someone at risk of committing a mass shooting. School employees need to be trained to identify people at risk.
“To me, rather than funding having teachers be armed and ready to shoot, we should fund teachers and administrators and people on the front lines to be able to identify people who are putting out the warning signs, so we can stop them before they do violence,” Heenan said. The parents from the 1991 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado are already providing profiling help to schools.
Heenan, a gun owner also, is not calling for a ban on any weapon.
Kathleen Williams is ready to limit assault-style weapons. A gun owner, Williams said she’s talked it over with other sportsmen and concluded the sacrifice is worth the lives saved.
“There are all kinds of different places you can go on gun safety," she said. "There’s lots of issues, but my bright line is stopping the massacres. And if you look at what is common in all of the last six massacres, it’s the weapon. And I’m a hunter, I’m a gun owner and my husband and I are so committed to raising a new generation of sportsmen and women in Montana. Those are a big part of the new conservationists that Montana will be raising in the future that vote for our public lands and support wildlife, and so that’s critical, but my husband and I, we never felt the need to own an AR-15, and I called my sportsmen friends, people who are endorsing our campaign, because I didn’t want to surprise them, and I talked through it with them, and they said the same thing. ‘We know people who have AR-15s. Some of our friends have them.' I know I’ve talked to people who own those guns, and if it comes to their ability to own those guns, versus keeping kids safe in school, they are OK with those being not on the streets. And what we advocated for is they’re be used in controlled environments, like machine guns are today. And that’s resonating. That’s resonating.”
In a Greater Montana Foundation forum last week, Pettinato said more on protecting children from gun violence needed to be done on all fronts, but he did not support limiting any weapon.
“What we’ve done isn’t enough,” Pettinato said. “But we’ve got a lot of steps we need to take in the meantime. We need to enforce the gun laws we have. Stop withdrawing them. We need more research. We have a lot of work to do.”
Meyer, who’s become known for his salty language at public forums, put it this way:
“Grant told me a few weeks ago that he wanted to support me. If I wanted his support I shouldn’t cuss so much,” Meyer said. “I hunt. I have a .30-06. I kill deer and elk with that. If you need a semiautomatic rifle to hunt, you’re a bad shot. If you want a semiautomatic rifle to have fun, I think you should stop being such a selfish b - - - h, and think about somebody else.”