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Montana senators split on gun violence bill

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Montana’s senators split Thursday evening on a bipartisan bill to address mass shootings by tightening gun laws while expanding mental health programs and school security.

The bill, which easily passed Thursday night with a filibuster-proof 65 vote majority, became the most supported attempt to curb gun violence since the 1993 passage of The Brady Bill, which established criminal background checks for gun buyers. Then and now, Montana’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers split on the issue.

In a vote to end debate and proceed to passage of the “Bipartisan Safe Communities Act,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, was among the 50 Democrats and 15 Republicans supporting debate on the bill, while Republican Steve Daines was among the 33 Republicans opposed. The bill now heads to the House for a Friday vote.

The legislation comes on the heels of the May 24 massacre of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas and also a racially-motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, on May 14 in which 10 people, all Black, were killed.

In both instances, the shooters were 18-year-old men, who legally purchased semi automatic AR-15-style rifles used in their terrorist attacks. The Senate specifically addresses gun sales to adults younger than 21, creating enhanced background checks for that age group. The bill also expands the definition of a dating relationship used when addressing gun restrictions imposed on people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. The bill approaches mental health care from several different fronts, including risk assessment for violence or suicide, a leading cause of death in Montana.

“I’m a proud gun owner and advocate of Montanans’ Second Amendment rights, and I also know the Senate needs to act to keep our communities safe,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, said in a text Wednesday. “I joined Republicans and Democrats voting yesterday to allow for an open and transparent debate in front of the American public. I am reviewing the details of the bill text, but I’m greatly encouraged to see folks on both sides of the aisle coming together on measures with broad bipartisan support like increased resources for mental health care and keeping guns out of the hands of those who are in danger to themselves or others.”

Tester had told constituents something similar during a Twitter livestream feed Wednesday afternoon, which covered a range of subjects. The senator stopped short of saying he would vote to pass the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act, a bill crafted by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

In the daily slurry of press releases by Montana’s congressional delegation, who flag bills they want constituents to know about, there was no mention of what was the most significant vote before lawmakers began their two-week Independence Day break, which begins June 27.

Daines issued a press release following the bill's passage:

“To keep our kids safe, we need to be focused on securing and protecting our schools—not more gun control. While I support investing in school safety, school counseling and mental health, I do not support policies that infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Montanans. I will always defend Montanans’ constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” Daines said.

Daines’s position was in line with the Montana Shooting Sports Association, a group highly effective in influencing Montana gun politics. Perhaps most notably, MTSSA successfully put into motion, former Attorney General Tim Fox’s review and rejection of the City of Missoula's decision to require background checks before all sales and transfers of arms, including private gun sales.

MTSSA Director Gary Marbut said Wednesday any proposed restriction on guns by the Senate was unacceptable.

“We’re already opposed to any incremental increase in gun control, no matter how small the increments are,” Marbut said. “We assume Daines and Tester know our position. They breathe Montana air once in a while. They ought to know.”

Marbut said the strength of the 64 senators supporting the Bipartisan Save Communities Act in a test vote was dubious. He pointed to a Texas GOP audience booing at Sen. John Cornyn over the weekend as proof that Republicans instrumental in crafting the bill had overplayed their hand.

The effective response to the Robb Elementary massacre in Uvalde, Texas, Marbut said, would be to give teachers trained in gun use, the option of bringing firearms to work. The shooting required an immediate gun response, he said. People under threat don’t call police for the red and blue top lights, Marbut said, they’re calling for men with guns. The guns would already be present if teachers who chose to be armed were.

However, Beckie Squires, a former teacher and Helena group leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said anyone familiar with schools would know teachers with guns isn’t the answer.

“I'm a retired educator, and I was in a middle school for 20 years. And I have to tell you, that that's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. It just boggles the mind. They have no idea what classrooms are like. I get speechless when they say things like that,” Squires said.

Moms Demand Action supports the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act. A national organization, the group has made a million phone calls and texts to lawmakers leading up to the introduction of the bill Squires said. The bill isn’t everything Moms has called for, but it is a start, Squires said.

The bill would deny a gun sale or ownership to someone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence in which the victim was still in a relationship or recently stopped a relationship with the offender. It would take five years of a clean record before an offender could reapply for gun ownership.

Gun buyers younger than 21 would be subject to a longer wait for purchase if anything suspicious showed up in an initial search. Another 10 days of research would be allowed in such cases. The bill requires a lookback at juvenile court records.

There is also funding available for states to update mental heath information for national background check databases. However, Montana doesn’t submit mental health records to the National Criminal Background Check System. Its hands-off approach to federal attempts at universal gun control date back to the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Act and a Montana sheriff who challenged Brady's requirement that state and local governments do background checks.

The bill would also provide funding for states that choose create “red flag” programs, in which through a court process weapons could be ordered confiscated from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

There is no language banning the sale of semiautomatic weapons to buyers younger than 21.

The bill contains more than $1.5 billion, nearly all of it grants, specifically for expanding mental health programs, in schools, for violence and suicide prevention in the general public and training for medical professionals to help spot people at risk.

Montana has one of the worst records on gun violence related to mental health issues, as previously reported by Lee Montana Newspapers. In Montana, suicide is the second leading cause of death, ranking the state among the worst nationally for suicide. When Montanans commit suicide, they usually shoot themselves.

“I think the people of this country are at a point. It’s enough. I mean, they have to do something,” Squires said. “There’s no one solution that’s going to stop all gun violence, but if we can save just one life, as far as I’m concerned, that’s important. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. We're not getting everything that we want. But we will certainly see this as a positive move in the right direction.”

The National Rifle Association, one of the biggest spenders in Montana congressional campaigns, opposes the bill.

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale and fellow Republican Sen. Steve Daines rank in the top 25 out of 535 members of Congress for NRA election support. The data comes from OpenSecrets, formerly known as the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, watchdog of money in politics.

Rosendale ranks third among current members of the House for lifetime NRA support, having benefited from $603,583 in spending by the NRA political action committee and donations from NRA employees. OpenSecrets reports that Rosendale has benefited most from NRA opposition of other candidates. The gun group spent $523,049 targeting Sen. Jon Tester in Montana's 2018 Senate race, which Rosendale lost.

Daines ranks 19th among current members of the Senate for lifetime NRA support, having benefited from $454,425 in spending by NRA political action committees and NRA employees. Roughly half that money was received as campaign donations since 2012, while the other half was spent in opposing Daines's opponents.

The NRA’s lifetime spending against Tester is $734,499. As previously noted, most of that money was spent in 2018 to benefit Rosendale’s unsuccessful Senate challenge.

Interestingly, when Montana’s senators split on the passage of the Brady Bill in 1994, the vote was 63 to 36, with one lawmaker not voting. Democrat Max Baucus voted for the Brady Bill, while Republican Conrad Burns opposed the measure.

In 2002, a reelection year for Baucus, the senator came out in favor of letting the Brady bill expire.

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Last month's mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, have produced a groundswell for change in Congress. Years of mass slayings of children, worshippers and others have not prompted lawmakers to pass significant legislation, until now. Buffalo and Uvalde came just 10 days apart, and the victims were elementary school students, teachers and shoppers engaged in everyday activities. Lawmakers say that's helped prompt a visceral public demand for Congress to finally do something. Feeling pressure to act, bipartisan bargainers produced a compromise gun violence bill that the Senate is moving toward approving later this week. House action is expected sometime afterward.

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