2019 Legislature: Gun bills include proposals for armed teachers, background checks

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a 10-part series previewing issues and legislation likely to dominate the 2019 Montana Legislature, written by students in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and distributed by UM’s Community News Service.

(UM Community News Service) Montana is home to more than 60 one-room schools, the most of any state. One, the single-room Hi-Line elementary school in Galata, relies on Shelby’s police department for protection – but Shelby is 23 miles away.

That’s why Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said he plans to support legislation this session that would allow school officials to carry concealed firearms.

“I really see it as a benefit for our rural schools to have some kind of protection for students,” Knudsen said. “That way they wouldn’t have to rely on cops that would take a half an hour or longer to reach the school.”

Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet is considering whether to introduce such a bill. His idea would allow specially trained teachers and school administrators to carry and use guns in schools – if they so choose.

Berglee, who served as an Army marksmanship instructor for three years, also serves as a reserve police officer. He said his bill would require that interested school officials complete training “equal to or greater than” that received by law enforcement. The key to such training is recognizing legitimate threats, he added.

“If it is a legitimate threat, then I think arming school officials has to part of the conversation,” Berglee said.

He added that many rural schools have limited budgets and often choose not to hire armed security guards.

An uphill fight

Berglee said he carried a similar bill that failed in the 2017 session because it had no mechanism detailing how school officials should decide who could carry arms. Some Republicans worried it would diminish local control, he added.

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service)

“In this next bill draft, I’ll have to alleviate that,” Berglee said. “I’m trying to find language in the bill that meets a training requirement that people can equate with proficiency. I’m saying if you’re proficient and safe, then you meet the requirement to carry.”

Given the recent history, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, said he expects that any bill to expand gun rights could make it through the Legislature, but would likely be vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who vetoed such bills before.

Still, Zolnikov is considering a bill that would allow Montanans to move from one county to another without renewing their concealed weapon permits. Existing law requires that anyone with a concealed-weapon permit notify any new county they move to.

“Nobody knows about it, nobody does it and it’s the whole state of Montana,” Zolnikov said. “So, is that even necessary? There’s no one enforcing it, so why is that a law?”

Zolnikov said his bill may be benign enough to pass.

Both Zolnikov and Knudsen said they expect Bullock to veto bills expanding gun rights. On the other hand, they see the GOP-controlled Legislature rejecting any bill to diminish gun rights.

Background checks

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, isn’t convinced. She said she’s noticed a move toward a more bipartisan understanding of revising gun laws as conversations about national mass shootings have developed.

Rep. Ellie Hill Smith

“In the last two sessions we’ve seen bills again and again to put guns in more dangerous places, like on college campuses,” she said. “I think we were able to kill that bill on the floor of the House, which means more Republicans have joined the Democrats.”

Hill expects someone this session will carry her legislation requiring that Montana report individuals who have been adjudicated as mentally ill to The National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“We created federal gun laws related to background checks and domestic violence a long time ago, and the state of Montana is one of very few states that does not enforce the federal law,” Hill said. “When we have someone adjudicated as mentally ill in Montana, we don’t report it to the NICS system.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, is considering a bill that would allow judges the option of confiscating firearms of people convicted of stalking or domestic violence – if it seems likely that the abuser is an ongoing threat.

Some statistics show victims of domestic abuse are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a gun, she said.

Gary Marbut, president of Montana Shooting Sports Association and a vocal advocate for gun owners, plans to encourage and support legislation that expands gun rights, especially after Bullock completes his final term in 2020.

“There are some bills that we have gotten through the Legislature before that have been vetoed by Governor Bullock,” Marbut said. “Once he’s gone we’ll be glad to be back with a number of bills that he has vetoed, in some cases more than once.”

This story was written for the University of Montana’s Community News Service, which features coverage from students at UM’s School of Journalism. Editors with questions about this story may contact reporters Emily Schabacker (emily.schabacker@umconnect.umt.edu) or Eric Lindblad (eric.lindblad@umontana.edu) or supervisor Dennis Swibold (dennis.swibold@umontana.edu).