Rep. O’Neil says bill allowing guns in locked vehicles at school recognizes Montana’s hunting tradition

Representative Jerry O'Neil (R-Columbia Falls)

Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls)

A bill before the Montana Legislature’s House Judiciary Committee (HB384) would allow firearms on the grounds of public schools, provided the firearm is inside a locked vehicle.

Sponsor, Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls) says the bill would allow a student, especially in rural Montana, “to take a gun in the trunk of their car, maybe do some hunting on the way to school, or hunt on the way back home from school.”

He also says the legislation would encourage more students to take advantage of school-sanctioned firearms activities like “4-H Shooting Sports” or “school physical education target practice.”

O’Neil points out these two exceptions are specifically allowed in the Federal Gun Free Schools Act:

(g) EXCEPTION- Nothing in this section shall apply to a firearm that is lawfully stored inside a locked vehicle on school property, or if it is for activities approved and authorized by the local educational agency and the local educational agency adopts appropriate safeguards to ensure student safety.

Montana law does not carry that exception, but Montana School Boards Association Associate Executive Director Debra Silk says states are not required to include it.

“There is a huge loophole in federal law,” Silk said in her testimony to the Judiciary Committee opposing the bill. She says students are currently subject to expulsion for a year if they bring a firearm onto school property, yet says the law “allows a local board of trustees to modify that requirement on a case by case basis.”

Rep. O’Neil brought up a 2010 incident involving Columbia Falls teenager Demari DeRue. DeRue left a hunting rifle locked in the trunk of her car on the day of a parking lot search by law enforcement. She told school administrators about the gun before it was discovered and said she accidentally left it there after a family hunting trip. She was suspended for nearly two weeks before the Columbia Falls School Board reinstated her in the wake of widespread support for DeRue.

Doug Nulle said in support of O’Neil’s bill that “we can’t lose sight of the profound impact school disciplinary action especially expulsion has on the lives of students,” particularly those who are seeking scholarships or certain forms of employment.

Representative Jenny Eck (D-Helena) opposes the bill, particularly in light of the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. “We’re dealing with kids,” Eck said,”who tend to be more emotional, who tend to react too quickly to things that are going on. And to make it easier for them to get a gun would increase the likelihood of their being tragedies in our schools.”

O’Neil says his legislation could make schools safer. He says it encourages students to become more familiar with guns and respect them. “Somebody that hasn’t had experience with firearms, they’re more likely to do stupid things with it.”

No action was taken on the bill Friday.

How a New York newspaper may affect Montana’s concealed carry laws

Jan Anderson of the Boulder Monitor speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday

Jan Anderson of the Boulder Monitor speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday

When a suburban New York newspaper, The Journal News published the names and addresses of concealed carry gun permit holders in two NY counties in December, gun rights advocates were enraged. NRA President David Keene called it “an incredibly irresponsible… attempt by the elite to demonize people who own firearms legitimately,” according to POLITICO.

Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson said, “In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, (we) thought the community should know where gun permit holders in their community were, in part to give parents an opportunity to make careful decisions about their children’s safety.” The newspaper has since removed the listing due to a new law passed in New York which provides increased privacy protections to gun permit owners.

Montana lawmakers are now working on similar legislation. On Wednesday, Senator Eric Moore (R-Miles City) spoke on his SB 145 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He cited reports of permit holders being harassed after their information was published in The Journal News. “Let’s be proactive,” Moore told the committee, “and avoid this situation in Montana by protecting the privacy and safety of our law abiding citizens who choose to obtain a concealed carry permit.”

The Montana Department of Justice says over 30-thousand concealed carry permit holders live in the state, as of mid-December.

The bill would make the information one has to fill in for a concealed carry permit confidential information for use only by the local sheriff, who decides on the distribution of the permits. This information, including “name, address, physical description, signature, driver’s license number…and a picture of the permittee,” is currently public record.

Bill supporter Montana Shooting Sports Association Lobbyist Doug Nulle, said this information being public can subject a concealed carry applicant to “a wide variety of crimes,” and said that can be a particular concern for “retired law enforcement officers, private investigators…stalking victims and victims of domestic violence.”

Boulder Monitor Publisher and Editor Jan Anderson argued against the bill. “There are legitimate reasons the public is entitled to certain information and indeed there are valid reasons in this situation,” she said, suggesting someone feeling threatened should be able to check if the person threatening them has a concealed weapons permit.

The Montana Newspaper Association also opposed it, arguing instead for emphasis on another bill, SB 37, which makes much of the same information confidential, but keeps the concealed carry applicant’s name and address on public record.

No action was taken on the bill Wednesday.