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People march while Congress takes no action on gun violence

The walkouts organized by students in Montana and across the nation last week, one month after 17 of their peers were killed in a shooting at a Florida high school, were only the latest sign of a galvanizing movement to pass stricter gun laws. It likely won’t be the last.

The official #Enough! National School Walkout received support and encouragement from the national Women’s March Youth Empowerment initiative, among other groups, but it was students themselves who led the brief, peaceful protests in their own schools. They did so both to honor the lives of those killed in recent school shootings, and to advocate for better guns laws to make their learning environments, and their communities, safer places for everyone.

As with the Women’s March, participants may be wondering just what to do now. They are still fired up and ready to take action. But what are the next steps?

Agreement on even the most basic improvements to gun legislation has been frustratingly difficult to reach. In Montana, a handful of proposals offer a sensible place to start, but nevertheless face a tough road to approval. 

There appears to be a wide chasm between the students’ perception of the problem and policymakers’ priorities. And students have good reason to think their safety and welfare are being overlooked by a shortsighted, hyper-partisan government.

Our state legislators, as a body, have long been more prone to loosening gun restrictions and encouraging more Montanans to carry firearms in more places – including schools. If students want that to change, they have to let their families, neighbors and legislators know. In particular, those who will be voting age before this upcoming Election Day can press the candidates to make school safety, mental health and gun control paramount campaign issues.

At the state level, Montana’s legislators must be encouraged bring the state into compliance with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). When it comes to improving gun safety, making the laws that are already in place work better seems like a glaringly obvious place to start.

Yet the Legislature has continually balked at taking any steps toward making the background check system more effective. Currently, the state does not share mental health records with NICS. As a result, a person may be involuntarily committed to a mental institution in this state, threaten violence against him- or herself or others, and then pass a federal background check and purchase a firearm. It has happened before. Without change, it will happen again.

Of course, the national background check system is far from perfect, but Congress is working on a bipartisan bill called the “Fix NICS Act.” It would provide federal funding to help states that opt to share criminal and mental health information with NICS. All three of Montana’s congressional delegates agree that any true fix would also include a way for individuals to contest a NICS listing and get their names removed.

These reforms make sense, and Congress ought to take action soon. However, there’s no good reason for the state to stall on its own part. Those who oppose legislation mandating that Montana report certain mental health information have argued that they are worried it would start the state on the slippery slope toward sharing all mental health records, that it would strengthen the stigma against mental illness and prevent Montanans from seeking help, and that ultimately, it wouldn’t be very effective anyway. They are wrong on all counts.

The state shares information with federal agencies all the time. In fact, Montana already forwards records on court proceedings if the defendant is determined to be mentally incompetent. Drawing a hard line between the vast majority of Montanans who suffer from mental illness and are not violent, and those who are at serious risk of harming themselves or others, is reasonable and relatively simple.

Further, the line between those who seek mental health care on a voluntary basis versus those are involuntarily committed is equally broad. Indeed, the possibility of involuntary commitment and NICS listing might even encourage more individuals to seek voluntary treatment before they reach the point of crisis.

And finally, it cannot have escaped the attention of U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, nor our state legislators, that Montana has been one of the leading states in the nation for suicide for decades, and that the majority of these suicides are completed with a firearm. Shouldn’t someone who has been involuntarily committed after attempting suicide be prevented from accessing a firearm until the risk has passed? Background checks may not stop every mass shooting, but they hold a lot of promise to help decrease Montana’s abysmal suicide rate.

Last week, the U.S. House passed the promisingly named but ultimately disappointing Stop School Violence Bill, which authorizes a mere $75 million in grants for this year and $100 million a year for the next 10 years for schools to offer training on warning signs and intervention, improve security, develop threat assessment teams and better coordinate with local law enforcement. That money might have made a dent in Montana’s school safety needs had it all been dedicated to Montana; as it is, however, our schools will have to vie for the grants with thousands of other schools across the nation. Gianforte voted in favor of it, and Daines signed on as a co-sponsor of the Senate version, which also aims to provide federal funding to hire more school counselors and mental health care providers.

It’s certainly a move in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough.

This week, Congress has an opportunity to take another small step. Montana’s congressional delegates will likely vote on another budget proposal. They should advocate for the removal of budget amendment that has prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence. The Dickey Amendment was tacked on to a major budget bill more than 20 years ago, and it’s high time it was struck and the CDC allowed to perform important public safety research.

At the very least, Americans should be better educated about gun violence and the efficacy of various gun laws. And who better to advocate for better education than America’s students?

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