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Missoula elementary school's gun safety assembly draws criticism
Hellgate Elementary

Missoula elementary school's gun safety assembly draws criticism

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Hellgate Elementary School Superintendent Doug Reisig talks in the middle school building in March 2016 about the district’s proposals to expand.

Hellgate Elementary School’s decision to hold a gun safety assembly produced by a prominent gun lobbyist has drawn pushback on social media from some parents and community members.

The presentation, which is set to be given to first-, second- and third-graders, on Sept. 17, is published by Montana Shooting Sports Association. The MSSA and its president, Gary Marbut, have spent decades advocating for deregulating firearms in Montana.

Hellgate Elementary Superintendent Douglas Reisig said he was aware of the messy politics around guns and gun safety, but sought out the presentation as part of his duty to keep kids safe. He also said that while the presentation and associated pamphlet were created and published by Marbut’s organization, representatives from the Western Montana Fish and Game Association, the group that owns the shooting range in Hellgate Canyon, actually would be making the presentation.

“That was a mistake on my part,” Reisig said of naming the MSSA in his letter to parents about the assembly. “But you can’t divorce the politics from reality, so what we’re providing is safety education. We’ll deal with the politics down the road, but I want to make sure that kids have the background to keep them safe in the event they do encounter a firearm.”

A Montana state law, which Marbut helped push through the Legislature, encourages public schools to maintain firearms safety education courses, though does not require it. Reisig said he was just following the direction of the state when he set up the assembly.

According to records from a May 13 Hellgate Elementary school board meeting, Marbut informed the board of the statute, and presented to the board the idea of bringing his “Be Safe: Gun Safety for Boys and Girls in Montana” to the school.

On Monday, Sept. 9, four days after parents were notified of the assembly, Reisig emailed the Western Montana Fish and Game Association wondering if the “Be Safe” program and the scheduled presenter, Lynnette Sims, still had the group’s endorsement.

“Not only does Western Montana Fish and Game Association endorse the program, we actually provide funding for Lynette Sims (sic) to provide the education in the local Missoula Schools,” association president Randy Stemple replied.

The email, provided to the Missoulian by Marbut, also provided links to letters of support for the “Be Safe” program from current Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, and a former OPI superintendent, Linda McCulloch, a Democrat.

Parents of schoolchildren set to attend the assembly were sent a letter explaining the school’s decision to hold the assembly, as well as a “Be Safe” pamphlet outlining the presentation. The letter also provided parents the ability to opt out of having their child attend the presentation.

Reisig said he included the “Be Safe” pamphlet for full transparency, and students who opted out would be taken to an alternative learning opportunity, though plans for what that will be are still in the works, he said.

The pamphlet includes a fictional story of two children growing up in a house with guns. It says that when they were very young, the parents had to keep the guns locked up, or as it says, “kid-proof the guns.”

It goes on to say that as the kids grew up and were taught not to play with electrical outlets or ride their bikes in the streets, the parents needed to “gun-proof the kids.”

The first rules it introduces to kids are to not touch a gun, and that if a friend does play with a real gun, to leave right away and tell an adult.

“As they grew older, their parents knew the time would come for Scott and Anna to get their first real guns,” the story reads.

Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, an advocate of gun control in the wake of increased mass shootings, said he thought the presentation missed the mark.

“I think it has a couple good points buried in it, but it's grossly incomplete,” von Lossberg said. “There’s a disclaimer on it that says, 'This is neutral on gun ownership.' That’s a farce. In the context of the pamphlet, it is laughable.”

Marbut defended the pamphlet's apparent endorsement of gun ownership by kids as being part of Montana culture.

“Lots of kids get their first BB gun when they’re between 6 or 8, a .22 at 10 to 12, hunter’s education at 13, and then their deer rifle,” Marbut said. “That’s the normal evolution in Montana. Certainly there are kids and families that don’t follow that mold, and that’s their business.”

According to the letter sent to parents, they need to return the signed letter by Sept. 13. 

One person criticizing the assembly on social media is Clara Mcrae, a UM freshman and co-founder of Helena Youth Against Gun Violence. Mcrae helped introduce a bill in the 2019 Legislature that would have required the Office of Public Instruction to regulate the types of gun safety education programs used in public schools. The bill did not pass; however in 2007, the Legislature did formally endorse Marbut’s “Be Safe” program.

“Marbut’s primary intention is (and always has been) loosening restrictions on firearms in any way possible,” Mcrae said in a tweet. “If there’s going to be firearm safety education in schools, that charge needs to be led by students and parents. Not right-wing lobbyist organizations.”

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