Background check supporters rally at Montana Capitol

2013-07-23T14:22:00Z 2013-07-24T11:18:32Z Background check supporters rally at Montana CapitolBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Speakers at a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday urged U.S. Sen. Max Baucus to change his stance and support expanded background checks before people can buy guns.

The Democratic senator voted against mandatory background checks earlier this year. A statement from his spokeswoman indicated Baucus favors other approaches to curb gun deaths.

Several speakers, including a longtime Baucus supporter, addressed a crowd of 35-40 people to urge the veteran senator to change his mind on the issue before he retires in 2014.

“Take Another Look, Senator Max Baucus!!” read a sign at the rally.

They spoke at the event sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

It was part of the 25-state “No More Names” tour. A similar event is set for Missoula on Thursday.

Before and after the event, participants read a list of some of the names of the more than 7,000 Americans killed by guns since 20 students and six teachers and adult staff were murdered in December 2012 in school in Newtown. Conn.

Vern Tolstedt, a retired Helena physician, with his wife, Leona, standing beside him, told how their 31-year-old son was shot and killed in Seattle 25 years ago by a couple of teenagers with criminal records.

“It is not possible to describe the emotional devastation of this event,” Tolstedt said. “Perhaps, with universal background checks, they may not have been able to obtain the rife used.”

Tolstedt, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association who is ready to quit the group, called for background checks before people can buy guns or ammunition and said it wouldn’t be an infringement of Second Amendment rights.

“Senator Baucus, I have supported you throughout your Washington legislative career,” Tolstedt said. “I think you are wrong not supporting comprehensive background check legislation.

“Now is the time to support me and the rest of citizens of the United States of America by voting for such legislation.”

State Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte, told how at age 17, in May 1997, she and her family were awakened by a call from the police in the middle of the night telling them to come to a Billings hospital.

They learned her 16-year-old brother had shot and killed himself playing Russian roulette at a party.

She also spoke about a 10-year-old boy in Butte who was killed by another student in 1994, and how a close family friend was killed after being shot in the face.

“These are not extraordinary circumstances,” Curtis said.

“I would be willing to bet that every single one of you that’s here today either has been directly affected or knows someone who has been directly affected by gun violence.”

Curtis, who is considering a race for the U.S. House, called for common-sense solutions.

“If Montana has 2.5 times the suicide rate of states with comprehensive background checks, maybe we should try that out,” said Curtis, a high school math teacher.

In response, a statement from Baucus spokesman Jennifer Donohue said Baucus has met with the families of Newtown and prays for them daily. Baucus has voted for increased mental-health care and school safety.

In 1994, Baucus voted for the gun background checks and for a ban on assault weapons proposed by President Bill Clinton.

With the NRA and other gun groups attacking him, Baucus survived his toughest race as a senator in 1996, defeating then-Lt. Gov. Denny Rehberg by five percentage points.

Baucus later reversed his position and now opposes background checks. The NRA endorsed him in his last race in 2008.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester voted for the background checks for guns this year.

Republican Rep. Steve Daines said he would oppose them if a bill came to the House.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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