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Missoulians rally after Uvalde massacre, demand action

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Gathered next to 19 chairs representing the children killed in the Uvalde, Texas massacre, about 100 Missoulians stood side by side Thursday evening calling for comprehensive legal action to improve gun safety around Montana.

On Thursday, Moms Demand Action held rallies across the state demanding thorough gun laws to protect public safety. At the event in Missoula, attendees called for more background checks, implementation of red flag laws and stricter regulation of assault rifles.

“At this point for kids in school, it isn’t ‘what if?’ or ‘just in case,’ it’s ‘when is it going to happen?’” Washington Middle School seventh grader Cora Barnes said at the event. 

Over 311,000 children in the U.S. have experienced gun violence since Columbine shook the country in 1999, according to a Washington Post database.

In 2020, there were 238 deaths related to firearms in Montana, resulting in a firearm injury death rate of 20.9 per 100,000 people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national average rate is 14.9 per 100,000 people. 

Montana has seen several alleged threats of school violence in the last year, with an especially alarming influx in the days following the elementary school massacre in Texas. 

Recent threats

In the two weeks after the Uvalde tragedy, five western Montana schools were alerted to threats: St. Ignatius High School, Columbia Falls Junior High School, Big Sky High School, C.M. Russell High School and Helena High School all took reports of possible school violence just days after the Uvalde tragedy.

Many of these incidents involved guns, with four separate suspects getting arrested. Officers responding to the incident at C.M. Russell High School determined no threat existed and no arrests were made. 

Last Tuesday, a 23-year-old Helena man was arrested on suspicion of making credible threats regarding a mass shooting at Helena High School. The suspect, Logan Pallister, stated he was inspired by the Columbine shooting in 1999, according to charging documents.

Helena police said Pallister had eight firearms, including five handguns and three semi-automatic rifles.

In a separate February incident, 18-year-old Parker Abbott in Missoula posted threats online, saying he was inspired by Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, according to court documents. Abbott, a Big Sky High School student, mentioned on social media he had access to his father’s firearms.

While a high volume of threats has been recently made against Montana schools, gun violence has already happened on a campus.

In 1994, 11-year-old Jeremy Bullock was killed on a school playground in Butte after a fellow student shot him.

His family created the Jeremy Bullock Memorial Trust to support students in Montana and the annual Jeremy Bullock Safe Schools Summit to provide Montana education stakeholders with information they can use to make schools safer.

According to a 2020 report from Every Town Research, roughly 75% of school shooters obtain guns from their residence or from the homes of friends and relatives.

School safety

Washington Middle School teacher Molly Norton was at Thursday’s event.

“I’m filled with a lot of rage,” Norton said. “I feel like I’m screaming into a void.”

In the wake of Uvalde, Norton said MCPS staff got an email recommending teachers ensure students are safe. But Norton said she doesn’t feel safe at her workplace.

She also wasn’t surprised by the recent threats across Montana.

“I feel like that’s normal in America now,” Norton said.

Within the first few days of the 2021-2022 school year, three juveniles were detained following a lockdown at Hellgate High School prompted by students alleging they planned to shoot their peers. No firearms were found on the suspects or on campus and no injuries were reported.

The Missoula County Public Schools administration shared tips from the National Association of School Psychologists with teachers and parents on talking with children about gun violence, which includes making time to talk, letting a child’s questions be a guide on how much information to provide, and reassuring children that they are safe.

“Please remember that all of our schools have emergency plans and procedures in place, and that routine drills take place in each school throughout the school year,” MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson wrote in the email. "School safety is our top priority, and we work continuously to provide the safest environment possible for all students and employees."

The Missoula Police Department has six student resource officers stationed throughout MCPS buildings.

These officers are tasked with conducting criminal investigations and reviewing threats toward Missoula’s schools, Missoula Police spokesperson Lydia Arnold said. Officers attended an active-shooter refresher and response course last February.

Call for action

Moms Demand Action is a national group with over 8 million members. At the top of the group's pleas is the need for safe gun storage to prevent children getting hold of firearms.

Shani Henry works for Moms Demand Action.

“Nobody should argue with the importance of the need to secure firearms responsibly,” Henry said in an interview with the Missoulian. “Firearms are a right through the Second Amendment, but they’re also a responsibility if you are an ethical and responsible gun owner.”

Henry also noted the lion's share of Montana’s gun violence happens via suicide incidents.

From 2010 to 2019 firearms were used in 63% of all suicides in Montana, and a majority (82%) of firearms used in youth suicides in the state belonged to a parent, according to the Lewis and Clark Suicide Prevention Coalition. Only 7.5% of suicides in Montana involved prescription medication in 2019.

The National Alliance for Suicide Prevention says that many suicide attempts take place during a short-term crisis and that putting time and distance between lethal means and those in crisis can prevent suicide.

Additionally, Moms Demand Action stresses the need for stricter laws around assault rifles.

“We feel like there needs to be a very, very harsh review of how assault weapons are manufactured and how they are marketed,” Henry said. “The marketing of firearms is pretty suspect.”

She’d also like to see better regulation of assault weapons.

“Again and again, it's typically these high-capacity, high magazine-volume, assault weapons in a variety of forms that are used in mass shootings,” Henry said. “For the sheer reason that they can fire so many rounds in such a quick instance.”

The organization pointed to red flag laws and background checks as other vital parts in improving gun safety around the country.

Red flag laws allow concerned law enforcement, family or educators to petition courts to temporarily remove firearms from someone suspected of misusing them, Moms Demand Action Missoula Chapter Lead Roxane Weikel explained.

“Background checks save lives,” former Missoula City Council member Bryan von Lossberg said at the Missoula rally. "Red flag laws save lives."

He called for Montanans to put the heat on the Legislature, especially the 68th Montana legislative session set to commence this January. 

“Engage them all,” von Lossberg said. “Tell them your stories. Tell them about the loved ones lost. Tell them about the fear. Tell them about your kids. Offer solutions, make them see and hear you. Remind them of their duty around the protection and benefit of the people's health, welfare and security.”

Legislation in Montana 

A district court judge in Lewis and Clark County struck down House Bill 102 — otherwise known as the “campus carry” bill — in December, citing the violations of the Montana Board of Regents’ constitutional authority.

Last spring, the Regents voted unanimously for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to seek a swift judicial review of the bill following overwhelming public comment in opposition.

The bill expanded where firearms can be and would allow students on college campuses who meet safety certifications to carry concealed firearms without a permit by removing the Regents’ ability to enforce restrictions for guns carried on campuses.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in February 2021 and was expected to take effect on campuses the following June.

During a public listening session held prior to the regents' decision, 75 people spoke. For every comment that offered support for the policy to allow guns on campus, there were nearly 11 in opposition.

In the most recent legislative session, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, wrote a bill that Gianforte signed adding language to state law to clarify that expulsion for bringing a firearm to school is discretionary for school boards.

While the bill was in committee, no one testified in favor of the bill and only Lance Melton with the Montana School Boards Association spoke in opposition. Melton raised issues with the bill in regard to how it relates to the federal Gun-Free Schools Act.

Glimm drafted the bill after a Columbia Falls student faced expulsion after accidentally bringing a hunting rifle to school in the trunk of her car.

Thursday evening, President Joe Biden addressed the nation to express his sympathies for the lives lost in Uvalde, and called for Congress to pass “common sense gun laws." 

He noted that in the 10 years since he visited Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut after 26 people were killed by a gunman, there have been more than 900 incidents of gunfire reported on school grounds.

“We can’t and won’t prevent every tragedy, but we know they (gun control laws) work and have a positive impact,” Biden said. “When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down. When the law expired, mass shootings tripled.”

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