HELENA – The Montana Legislature could soon consider a bill on gun safety, based on the ideas of a group of Helena students.
House Bill 477 was drafted with the input of members from the group Helena Youth Against Gun Violence. The group formed last year, after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and staff members dead.
Members organized events like the Helena March for Our Lives in March 2018.
“I turned the grief that I was feeling for those students and families at Parkland into fuel, and I got involved,” said Amanda Penley, a senior at Capital High School.
Penley said she and Clara McRae, the group’s co-founder, began talking last summer about the possibility of creating legislation to address their concerns about gun safety.
“To effect real change, we needed some kind of policy in place,” Penley said.
The students began researching the issues and talking to community members about their ideas. Local lawmakers gave them advice on the legislative process. Eventually, Rep. Moffie Funk (D-Helena) connected them with a legislative bill drafter.
The students’ ideas developed into HB 477. It would create a new criminal offense of “leaving a firearm accessible to a child.” A person could be fined up to $1,000 if they left a gun unsecured, a child got it and fired it, and it caused death or serious injury to the child or another person.
“Securing” a gun for the purposes of the law could include putting it in a locked container, The law would not apply if a child was using a gun to hunt, for sport or for other legal purposes while under adult supervision, or for self-defense.
Penley said this idea came from an existing law in Texas, where making a firearm accessible to a child is a misdemeanor. Some of the language of HB 477 was taken directly from that law.
“Really, it’s about kids when you look at it, and just making sure that, yes, in Montana, we own firearms and we’re proud of that, and that’s great, but also we need to be proud of the fact that we store them responsibly, and we keep our children safe,” said Penley.
The bill would also require the Montana Office of Public Instruction to develop model policies for school districts to offer firearms safety education. State law currently says districts may establish gun safety courses.
Penley said they added this section to HB 477 in response to input from Republicans. She said some had been concerned the bill was only reactive, not proactive.
“I would say we’ve met with just as many Republicans as we have Democrats at this point,” she said. “We actually have learned so much from asking them questions and hearing their advice on the bill and what they think would work in Montana as well as for their constituents.”
Funk has agreed to sponsor HB 477 and officially introduced the bill last week, exactly one year after the Parkland shooting.
The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. Penley said she expects it to receive an initial hearing sometime in mid-March. She said she’s optimistic the bill can draw support from lawmakers.
“I think if people just read into the bill and read the whole thing in its entirety, they’ll probably be more likely to support it,” she said.
Regardless of what eventually happens with HB 477, Penley said getting the opportunity to learn about the legislative process firsthand has been valuable. She hopes other students will take action on the issues that matter to them.
“Getting young people involved in politics is huge, and I think it’s really important,” she said. “I have learned so much throughout this process.”
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News