HELENA – A group of Helena high school students, who’ve organized to push for solutions to gun violence, met this week with two of the state’s top elected officials – and talked political strategy with Gov. Steve Bullock.
Members of Helena Youth Against Gun Violence, organized in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Florida high school, met Friday with Bullock and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
The meeting with Tester was held without the media, but Bullock and 10 Helena Capital High School students met for more than a half-hour in an open session at the Capitol.
Some students also met with a staffer from the office of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.
Student Clara McRae said the group wants to be nonpartisan as it advocates for solutions to gun violence, and asked the governor for advice on how to “depolarize” the issue.
“We’ve definitely had trouble with that,” McRae said, noting that some gun-rights advocates have been unsparing in their criticism of the students.
Bullock, a Democrat, said it’s a “challenge” to depolarize any hot-button issue, but that he believes gun violence should be approached as a “public health issue,” and mentioned how 22,000 people commit suicide with a firearm and more than 10,000 people are murdered with guns each year in America.
He said if it’s approached as a health issue, some relatively easy things could be pursued to reduce gun violence, such as emphasizing safe storage of firearms, universal background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of people involved in domestics disputes that have reached the courts.
“We can’t just say, `No matter what you do, you’re not going to solve it,’” Bullock said. “This isn’t about politics – it’s about feeling safe in your community or your school. And if there are measures that can be done, where we can get people to be thoughtful about that … then it’s a big win.”
McRae said the group now has 60 members and has organized a local walkout from classes Tuesday, as part of a nationwide student walkout to protest gun violence.
Members also are planning to take part in a March 24 march that coincides with the “March for our Lives” event in Washington, D.C.
McRae said the group has encountered opposition, often via the Internet, but that opponents misunderstand what they stand for.
“I don’t think anyone here wants to see the Second Amendment repealed, or, like, nobody here wants to see every Montanan lose their gun,” she said. “I think we have a lot of people in our group that own guns for hunting, that own guns for self-defense.”
The students quizzed Bullock on his views on a number of gun-related proposals.
Arming teachers with firearms? “A horrible idea,” said Bullock.
Banning “bump stocks” that can turn semiautomatic weapons into the equivalent of a machine gun? “That ought to be a pretty darn easy one,” the governor said.
Requiring people to take some sort of gun-safety class before they can purchase or own a firearm? Bullock said he thought that approach wouldn’t fly, because it could encroach on the right of law-abiding citizens to purchase legal weapons.
Quinn McHugh, a Capital High student, said she plans on being a teacher, and that she didn’t “want to be that teacher with a gun.”
Bullock complimented the Helena students – and other students – for getting involved, and urged them to keep at it.
“I’m hopeful that the Parkland students and I’m hopeful all of you will finally inspire a difference, in changing the discussions,” he said.