House leader shuts down gunshot story

Rep. Keane vows to tell the story at the Capitol another time

By: - January 13, 2021 6:41 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Rep. Jim Keane got shut down Wednesday during a hearing on a gun bill in the Montana House when he tried to talk about getting shot in 1957 while getting a Christmas tree.

“You ever suffered a gunshot wound, representative?” Keane asked Rep. Seth Berglee, sponsor of House Bill 102.

Berglee, who served in the military, paused, and Rep. Derek Skees, chairing the hearing, jumped in: “Is that in the bill somewhere?”

Keane, a Butte Democrat, said: “Well, we’re talking about safety … I’d like to ask you (Berglee) and the body who in the body has ever suffered a gunshot wound.”

Skees said the question was a breach of decorum, and the Republican from Kalispell said he could tell it made some members of the House uncomfortable: “That’s an intensely personal subject.”

Republican Rep. Barry Usher later agreed with Skees: “That’s the same thing as asking any of the women here if they’ve had an abortion.”

Wednesday, House members voted 67-33 to pass House Bill 102 on second reading. Berglee, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment in response to Keane’s question, testified the bill would increase people’s safety by expanding their legal ability to defend themselves. The bill broadens places where people can legally carry concealed firearms — in gun-free zones, Berglee said, only criminals come armed.

In the meeting broadcast via video, the representatives took their votes without hearing the end of Keane’s story – he pledged to try to share it at the Capitol again – but they also did so with a reprimand from Rep. Kim Abbott.

Minority leader Abbott, whose experience at the Capitol goes back to 2003, said she’s heard many personal and moving stories relevant to topics lawmakers are considering. She asked Rep. Wylie Galt to continue allowing people to share personal experiences.

“Mr. Speaker, I hope you will consider ignoring that precedent for the remaining of this session,” Abbott said. The Helena Democrat added, “It worries me, what happened today.”

Keane told the body he’s a gun owner, but he doesn’t think it’s a good bill, and he’s worried about safety on campuses. In a phone call after the meeting, he said he was declining to share the rest of his story with members of the media directly, but he said people should stay tuned for a future opportunity he might have at the Capitol.

The bill is controversial in part because it would take away the Montana Board of Regents’ authority to regulate guns on college campuses. With some exceptions, such as an event where alcohol is served, the bill would allow people to carry concealed weapons on campuses.

In his testimony, though, Berglee said a gun in the hands of a law-abiding citizen may have prevented unnecessary death on a campus. The Joliet Republican pointed to the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.

In that case, he said the criminal shot a person in a dorm, and the resident assistant tried to help but also was shot and killed. Two hours later, he said, the shooter killed 30 more people.

“If that RA had had a gun, things may have been entirely different,” Berglee said.

Democrats have opposed the bill. Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, said she and her Democratic colleagues have heard from educators, gun owners, bankers and law enforcement officers who oppose the bill.

Kelker, of Billings, said she believes campuses will no longer be safe havens for students should the bill be signed into law. Parents shouldn’t have to worry, she said, and students should be able to focus on their studies.

“That peace of mind will not be aided by bringing more guns onto campuses and giving students and law enforcement officers more weapons to worry about,” Kelker said.

Rep. Ed Stafman, whose district surrounds Montana State University, said he swore to uphold the constitution, and the Montana Constitution gives the Regents full power to control campuses.

He also said more guns on campuses are cause for concern. Law enforcement officers worry they won’t be able to distinguish “the guy from the bad guy,” he said. But he had a greater worry as well given Montana’s high suicide rate.

“Perhaps the gravest danger is the suicide that more guns on campus will almost surely enable,” Stafman said.

In supporting the bill, Rep. Braxton Mitchell pointed out another danger on campus. Describing himself as a gun owner and college aged, the Columbia Falls Republican said women are raped on campus, and allowing them to carry guns and defend themselves will help protect them against predators.

In his argument, Mitchell said the bill will give young women “the power to stand up and feel strong over these vicious, sick and overpowering men.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.