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Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls)

Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls)

A bill before the Montana Legislature’s House Judiciary Committee (HB384) would allow firearms on the grounds of public schools, provided the firearm is inside a locked vehicle.

Sponsor, Representative Jerry O’Neil (R-Columbia Falls) says the bill would allow a student, especially in rural Montana, “to take a gun in the trunk of their car, maybe do some hunting on the way to school, or hunt on the way back home from school.”

He also says the legislation would encourage more students to take advantage of school-sanctioned firearms activities like “4-H Shooting Sports” or “school physical education target practice.”

O’Neil points out these two exceptions are specifically allowed in the Federal Gun Free Schools Act:

(g) EXCEPTION- Nothing in this section shall apply to a firearm that is lawfully stored inside a locked vehicle on school property, or if it is for activities approved and authorized by the local educational agency and the local educational agency adopts appropriate safeguards to ensure student safety.

Montana law does not carry that exception, but Montana School Boards Association Associate Executive Director Debra Silk says states are not required to include it.

“There is a huge loophole in federal law,” Silk said in her testimony to the Judiciary Committee opposing the bill. She says students are currently subject to expulsion for a year if they bring a firearm onto school property, yet says the law “allows a local board of trustees to modify that requirement on a case by case basis.”

Rep. O’Neil brought up a 2010 incident involving Columbia Falls teenager Demari DeRue. DeRue left a hunting rifle locked in the trunk of her car on the day of a parking lot search by law enforcement. She told school administrators about the gun before it was discovered and said she accidentally left it there after a family hunting trip. She was suspended for nearly two weeks before the Columbia Falls School Board reinstated her in the wake of widespread support for DeRue.

Doug Nulle said in support of O’Neil’s bill that ”we can’t lose sight of the profound impact school disciplinary action especially expulsion has on the lives of students,” particularly those who are seeking scholarships or certain forms of employment.

Representative Jenny Eck (D-Helena) opposes the bill, particularly in light of the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. “We’re dealing with kids,” Eck said,”who tend to be more emotional, who tend to react too quickly to things that are going on. And to make it easier for them to get a gun would increase the likelihood of their being tragedies in our schools.”

O’Neil says his legislation could make schools safer. He says it encourages students to become more familiar with guns and respect them. “Somebody that hasn’t had experience with firearms, they’re more likely to do stupid things with it.”

No action was taken on the bill Friday.

 

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