Guns bill advances to Senate floor

GOP lawmaker: ‘It’s the best bill we’re going to vote on’

By: - January 29, 2021 4:18 pm

The Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana. The building was built in 1899, and an addition completed in 1911. Eric Seidle For the Daily Montanan.

A bill to expand permitless carry in Montana is heading to the Senate floor — with a singsong “yes” vote from Sen. Theresa Manzella of Hamilton and great enthusiasm from Sen. Steve Hinebauch in committee.

Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

“I’m excited about this bill,” said Hinebauch, a Wibaux Republican. “I think it’s the best bill we’re going to vote on this year.”

House Bill 102, which also would remove the Montana Board of Regents’ authority to regulate guns on college campuses, passed 6-5 in the Senate Judiciary committee on Friday. Sen. John Esp was the only Republican to vote no.

Sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the bill flew through the Montana House last week. It now heads to the Senate floor — for the second time.

Earlier this week, lawmakers tangled with amendments in committee. They kicked the bill to the floor, but the legislation was returned to committee for more work. Friday, senators marched through amendments again — and again gave it a green light.

In committee, Esp wanted to make it illegal to conceal carry in places that serve alcohol, but that amendment failed: “I’m kind of old fashioned, and it doesn’t make good common sense to me to have guns in everybody’s hand in a bar that wants them.”

Republican Chair Sen. Keith Regier disagreed: “They can open carry — might as well conceal carry.”

None of the Senate Judiciary Committee members said they still wanted to work on the bill, as Esp did in an earlier session. However, Democrats continued to criticize the legislation for being poorly written and for its potential to increase gun violence.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings,  described the bill as being in “really rough shape,” creating a “patchwork of laws,” and being unfit for the Senate floor. Regardless, she didn’t like the content.

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

“My community is experiencing just a wild rate of violent crime, and I just do not feel this bill is in the interest of public safety for my community, and I would extend that across the state,” said Gross.

Earlier this month, the Billings Gazette reported that Yellowstone County saw 19 homicides in 2020, including from gunshots. The Gazette said the total represents more than one death every three weeks — a record since at least 2006.

Sen. Diane Sands, who has raised numerous concerns with the bill, shared her rationale for voting against it. The Missoula Democrat said it’s “badly crafted” and needs much work, but those aren’t the main reasons she was voting against it.

“It does not change the primary intention of this bill to put more guns in the hands of people who are not trained and not licensed. I think it’s dangerous,” Sands said.

She also said the bill will significantly impact the Montana University System, possibly to the tune of $10 million. Sands had earlier argued the bill should have a fiscal note to acknowledge its financial impacts.

In a 2020 report on research about factors driving legislation to allow guns on campuses, the University of Nevada said Arizona had estimated costs of a related bill in 2012 from things like adding signs, storage lockers and police. The report said one-time costs of allowing concealed weapons could hit $13.3 million, and annual costs could reach $3.1 million for three Arizona universities.

In an email, however, Kevin McRae of the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said he did not believe the costs to campuses would be high.

“We don’t anticipate significant fiscal impacts related to facilities, staffing, or anything else if we were to implement the terms of HB102,” McRae said Friday after the meeting. “We have informed committee members of such.”

The bill in Montana represents a trend across the country of legislation that aims to allow concealed carry on campuses. The University of Nevada story said the Arizona bill ultimately failed, but a coauthor of the study described such bills as “largely unfunded mandates.”

Sen. Tom McGillvray, though, praised HB102 for allowing people who follow the law to better protect themselves.

“It articulates a fundamental human right and constitutional right, and that is that every individual has the right to defend themselves,” said McGillvray, a Billings Republican.

In an earlier review, the Montana Legislature’s legal analysts said the bill may not conform to the state Constitution and powers held by the Montana Board of Regents. The Constitution states control of the MUS “is vested in a board of regents of higher education which shall have full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system.”

The legal note to House Bill 102 said this: “According to the Montana Supreme Court, this constitutional provision grants a high degree of independence and autonomy to the Board of Regents, subject only to the Legislature’s power of appropriation.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”