HELENA — A Montana lawmaker told colleagues Friday that students should be allowed to leave their guns locked in cars without fear of expulsion, a proposal opposed by those who argue the weapons have no place on school grounds.
Republican Rep. Jerry O'Neil told the House Judiciary Committee that students sometimes inadvertently leave hunting rifles in their vehicles and shouldn't be punished for doing so.
The Republican cited the 2010 suspension of a 16-year-old Columbia Falls student who left her hunting rifle in the trunk of her car, and was disciplined after disclosing it to school officials in advance of a random drug search.
The cheerleader who had never been disciplined before was allowed to return to school after an outcry of community support.
The bill also would allow schools to establish special gun lockers for students to use. And the measure requires that expulsion proceedings for bringing a gun to school must include an evidentiary hearing, and prevents districts from disciplining students for fake weapons, such as shaping their hands into pretend guns.
"It allows a student in rural Montana to bring a gun to school locked in their car, and perhaps hunt on the way to school or the way home from school," O'Neil said of House Bill 384.
No immediate action was taken. A similar measure brought two years ago by O'Neil failed to get out of the Education Committee, and a motion to blast it straight to the House floor received little support.
Current law, shaped to comply with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, says students must be expelled for one year for bringing a firearm to school. Trustees are allowed to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis.
A report the state files as part of that federal law shows that in the 2010-2011 school year there were four students in the state expelled for bringing a weapon to school, while 132 were suspended for doing so. The report does not specify the type of weapon.
The Montana School Boards Association argued the current law works fine. Debra Silk, an attorney with the Montana School Boards Association, said no Montana school has expelled a student for an entire year for accidentally leaving a hunting rifle in a locked car. She said local districts have done a good job of properly handling such cases. Silk argued that recent school shootings around the country do not warrant less-stringent gun rules.
In Montana, there have been two cases in the past month of students bringing firearms into their schools. Earlier this week, a Miles City student brought a loaded handgun to school, saying he wanted it for protection following recent school shootings. The district plans a hearing to decide whether to expel the currently suspended student. Last month, a 14-year-old boy brought two handguns to Harrison High School.
He told authorities he wanted to prove "you don't need an assault rifle to shoot up a school," and was considering using the guns in a shooting "for political reasons."