You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
special report

Views from gun country

  • Updated
  • 13 min to read
Views from gun country
Montana House Bill 102 was a flashpoint in the state Legislature this year, sparking fierce debate over the need for concealed and open carry on college campuses. The bill sailed through the Republican-dominated House and Senate on party lines, but was quickly challenged in court, where it remains today, locked in legal limbo. HB 102 seeks to allow Montanans to carry firearms nearly anywhere in the state, and while the partisan battle lines seem clear cut in Helena, the opinions of Montanans and politicians outside the Capitol are more complicated. This week, Kaimin Arts and Culture Editor Clarise Larson talked to Montanans from the Capitol to the cornfield and shared the stories of two individuals and their divergent perspectives on life in gun country with Kaimin Cast host Austin Amestoy.

Austin Amestoy: From the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent, student-run newspaper, this is the Kaimin cast for the week of Sept. 27. I'm Austin Amestoy. 

Montana House Bill 102 was a flashpoint in the state Legislature this year, sparking fierce debate over the need for concealed and open carry on college campuses. The bill sailed through the Republican-dominated House and Senate on party lines, but was quickly challenged in court, where it remains today, locked in legal limbo. HB 102 seeks to allow Montanans to carry firearms nearly anywhere in the state, and while the partisan battle lines seem clear cut in Helena, the opinions of Montanans and politicians outside the Capitol are more complicated. This week, Kaimin Arts and Culture Editor, Clarise Larson, talked to Montanans from the Capitol to the cornfield, cutting through the politics of guns and discovering the divergent realities of life in gun country. 

Amestoy: Clarise, welcome to the Kaimin Cast. I hope you're bringing us some piping-hot culture today, courtesy of the Arts and Culture section.

Clarise Larson: Oh, you betcha, Austin.

Amestoy: Well, Clarise, this story you reported is another headliner in our special series, "In the Crosshairs", where we were exploring Montana's history and relationship with guns and how those factors led to House Bill 102. I know that for this story, you had the unenviable task of pushing aside all the political discourse around HB 102 and getting into the heart of the matter, which is really, how did Montana's culture and attitude toward guns lead to House Bill 102? And I know you came at this question from an outsider's perspective. So, I want to start and finish today's conversation with you, Clarise. Tell me about how you saw Montana before and after you came here for school and what you thought about House Bill 102 when you first heard about it.

Larson: Yeah, I'm originally from Minnesota, just outside the Twin Cities, and honestly, I came to school here because I'd never seen mountains and it was pretty here, and I was like, "this seems like a good place." I fell in love with Missoula; I fell in love with Montana. It's just so great here. When I go home, a lot of the time, my uncle or my grandpa would be like, "Oh, do you go to the rodeo? What do you what do you do to Montana? Like, are you are you hunting? What are you doing?" I'm like, "I'm studying, I'm in my my apartment right now, you know, writing a story." A lot of people have these weird connotations about Montana, at least where I'm from; that it's like the "Wild West" out there. It's like, no, it's a lovely place to be, and it's a place that I call home. 

When we first talked about doing the story, it sounded pretty simple. I thought it was going to be just kind of analyzing what Montana is, and then I got deeper into the story, and I was like, "Oh, man, this is a really hard story to talk about." So when I first heard about House Bill 102, I was on the phone with my mom, and I was like, "Hey, Mom, there's a story going around that guns are going to be allowed on campus without a permit." And my mom was like, "What the hell?" And I was like, "You're telling me — I live here. And she's like, "What the hell?" And I'm like, "I know, I know, Mom, settle down. It's okay — Missoula is safe. I don't know why this is happening, but I truly believe Missoula is safe, and I'm safe on campus." 

Going into this story, I kind of questioned like, who are the people that want these guns on campus? Is it just kind of like Montana culture that nurtures this to happen, or is it a separate group? Like, who is this who is nurturing this specifically to be on campus? As a student, I was just confused, really. I was just curious more than anything as a student, and I wanted to tell my mom, "Hey, Mom, this is why it's happening. It's not, maybe, what you think it is."

Amestoy: Like I said, you're coming at this with an outsider's perspective, which is one of the reasons I think that the Kaimin tasked you with this story, Clarise. We really wanted someone who's coming from outside the embedded culture of guns and ranching culture in Montana, which is where we think a lot of this background for HB 102 came from. You were tasked by the Kaimin with answering a lot of your own questions about the real culture and heritage behind that passion for guns in Montana that led to House Bill 102. I mean, that's a pretty broad topic for a story. I'm wondering where on earth you started with your reporting?

Larson: Being from the arts and culture field, I did a lot of art research. I looked at a lot of Charlie Russell paintings. He was a painter; he painted about Western lifestyle. And so I looked at a lot of his paintings; saw what he depicted. He's also very famous — he's got a museum in in Montana, so obviously, he's got some some roots here. And so I looked at a lot of his paintings. And I looked at movie posters from Western movies, specifically Montanan ones. And I was kind of like, "maybe I just analyze the media." But then the further I analyzed media, I was like, "media is wrong. Media is not depicting this right.  Who is depicting it?" When I looked at media, you see, you know, a lot of "cowboys." Cowboys, in a sense, still exist today, but they're not as big as media is making him out to be, and so something that I thought would bridge the gap between "cowboys" versus  reality, is what is big in Montana, and that's ranching. And so, I reached out to a lot of people around campus, you know, specifically in like the forestry or agricultural sects of the school and I found Ada Smith.

Amestoy: Tell me a little bit about this Ada Smith. What does she do and what did she offer you for this story? What was her background in relation to the questions you were trying to answer?

Larson: She's a Ph. D. candidate focused on decision-making, climate adaptation and roles and voices of women ranchers in Montana. That's what she's studying and focusing on for a Ph. D. And I was like, "I really scored with this source." She's from Wisconsin, but she she grew up going to her grandpa's ranch and ranch in Nine Mile Valley.

Ada Smith: "My family has a background in ranching, but I am not a rancher myself. I'm an environmental social scientist at this point in my life, but I grew up coming out here." 

Larson: Her grandpa, his family goes back generations. They came from Norway, all the way down to Montana, and that's where they settled. They did sheep and cattle. It's just the the vivid details that she gave me about her grandpa, and the shock that I got when I heard about him and kind of the man that he was, I was like, "This is not what I pictured when I think of a rancher."

Smith: "He didn't like to — so, he grew up raising sheep, and he loved his animals so much, I think, that he never wanted to eat them. He hunted instead."

Larson: He loved his animals so much, because he raised them from little babies, that he just hunted because it just felt nicer to him to hunt from the land than it did to eat the animals that he raised.

Amestoy: Ada also told you a story about this kind of unconventional rancher figure, her grandfather, about some wolves he discovered on his property.

Larson: In the 1990s, Canadian wolves came down and they kind of landed in Montana, specifically Nine Mile Valley is when they started to come out — it was 1990. And he was just doing his thing, and he found a den of wolves.

Smith: "It was very shocking. Yeah, it was definitely a moment where some ranchers would just choose to eradicate them. But my grandpa and his brother Bruce, they love ranching for being on the land; being close to wildlife. And so, they're really curious. They ended up partnering with wildlife biologists, Mike Jimenez, who's here at the University, to study the wolves."

Amestoy: What were Ada's grandfather's attitudes towards firearms? Because I think that's a crucial part of this story we're trying to unpack about ranching and farming in Montana and the cultural background of firearms.

Larson: The way that Ada describes him, he was a very humble guy. He just didn't really use firearms unless it was for food or for protection against the wildlife. He was in "hungry country" — there's cats, bears and wolves, of course, and so he had to protect what he needed to protect. The way she described him, he wasn't walking around with his rifle in town. He was kind of just hanging out, and it was there, but it was never something that he used besides as a tool.

Smith: "I think a rifle in his life was utilized more for just self protection. We live in grizzly and cat and wolf country, and so I think there was the hope that he would never have to use his rifle."

Amestoy: So much of Ada's early ideas, growing up on this ranch, about what a gun was and what it was meant for was shaped by this grandfather who saw guns more as tools than as something to be carried everywhere, right?

Larson: Yeah. Ada, she's a hunter herself. She just started hunting later in life. Guns were really a big part; it was kind of just a background thing about ranching for her grandpa. It was just something that had to be done from time to time. But now that she is older, she likes guns, and she thinks that there's a time and place for them. But from what she's told me, she doesn't think House Bill 102 should let guns be on campus.

Amestoy: Clarise, Ada offered you a pretty nuanced view of guns and gun ownership. But I know you also talked with someone who has deep roots in Montana's ranching community, as well as a position of power in the Legislature.

Larson: Yeah, I got the opportunity to talk to Wylie Galt, the Speaker of the House for the Montana House of Representatives. He is very similar in the ways of Ada's grandfather. His family has Irish heritage. They came from Ireland and they settled in Montana, and they they grew their family farm. They have, almost more than 100,000 acres of land across their family, which is pretty big.

Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale: "Yeah, well, I'm a fourth generation rancher, so we've been at it a long time — long family history of it."

Larson: Of course, it's spread out between family members: his uncle, his father, a few siblings and cousins. But, his family has been huge in the ranching community. His grandfather served in the senate as well.

Rep. Galt: "You know, my grandpa was in the Senate back in the 70s and 80s, and retired as President of the Senate. He grew up just across the road. I grew up with him, and then it just kind of spurred me into it, and then I realized that there's not a lot of agriculture. We joked there's not a lot of "boots under the desk" anymore.

Amestoy: Why did you feel as though Galt was an important person to talk to for this particular story?

Larson: He has such a big impact on Montana's people. He's the Speaker of the House; he speaks for the people. And I think that's a really powerful position to have. And also, you know, he voted "yes" on the bill, which is something that I think says a lot and also, kind of, places a connotation, almost, on someone. If you vote "yes" on this bill, or if you side with this bill, from my point of view, from where I came into the story, I was like, "I'm ready to go in there, and he's going to have his guns on his hips." But he wasn't like that at all. He was an amazing person to talk to you and really changed my perspective a lot. 

Amestoy: So you and one of our photographers, Olivia Swant-Johnson, made the drive out to Galt Ranch in Martinsdale. And, when you got there, what was it like?

Larson: We actually drove to the wrong ranch. We drove to his uncle's ranch, and so, instead of making a three hour trip, we made a four-and-a-half-hour trip out there. So it definitely dampered the mood a little bit. 

But then we got there, and we pull up, and Wylie's standing at his door in his socks, wearing a big belt buckle and a flannel shirt. We sit down with him, and I was like, "Can I record?" He was just so open to everything, and every question we talked to him about, he had just such a well-thought-out and honest answer. And it was personable; it wasn't just like, "this is what my party thinks." It was, "this is what I think as a rancher, and as a Montanan."

Rep. Galt: "Don't mind the mess — dogs. It's partially an office."

Larson: We hopped in his truck, and he gave us a tour of the tour of the ranch, and it was one of the most refreshing interviews I've done in a really long time. Someone who I thought I had an opposite view of and who I thought was gonna be "the antagonist" was really just a person, and he grew up doing things in Montana that I didn't grow up doing in Minnesota, but all three of us were really just talking. 

Amestoy: What did he tell you about how he and his family use and have used guns in their work?

Rep. Galt: "We use it for protection. I mean, we have a lot of predators out here. Usually every vehicle has a gun in it, but we are taught at a young age. We have very strict rules: you get a BB gun first, then you prove you can be safe with the BB gun, then you upgrade to a .22, which, then you get to go shoot the varmints."

Larson: Guns are a necessary tool for what he does. Just driving around the ranch with him, he's  got 600-head of cattle. He needs to take care of the land, not only to pay for his house, but to put food on the table. He talked about guns as a normal thing. You know, you  get your little BB gun when you're a kid, and then when you prove to be safe, you go to .22, and then you move up from there. This is something in his family, personally, that he took with extreme caution and extreme care. It was not a toy.

Rep. Galt: "I mean, it's definitely something that we rely on as a tool."

Amestoy: But you know, Wylie Galt the generational rancher is also Wylie Galt, Speaker of the House in Montana, and part of that job means pushing through bills that the party and the leader of the party — in this case, Governor Greg Gianforte — want passed. So Galt was, in some ways, responsible for making sure House Bill 102 made it through the Legislature. How did Galt justify the, sort of, sweeping expansions to gun rights made by House Bill 102 to you?

Larson: Something that he justified a lot was that Montanans need to put a line somewhere, because he wants to protect responsible gun owners that he believes are in Montana. He thinks that the people who are responsible should have the personal freedom to carry a weapon, either concealed or not, without a permit, because some people do deserve those liberties, in his eyes.

Amestoy: I'm hearing a defense from Galt that's less about the guns themselves and more about individual liberty. You know, it's more about the principle of the Second Amendment to him than glorifying guns and gun ownership. Would you say that's accurate? 

Larson: Yeah, I would say so. He did talk about the Second Amendment, and he talked about how it's important to him as a Montanan. His family's been here for four generations now. He knows what he's doing on the ranch; he knows what needs to get done. And part of that is using a gun on the ranch. And so, from his point of view as a rancher, he wants to protect that right.

Amestoy: But I'm also wondering, how does Galt make the jump from owning guns in a ranching setting — you know, rifles and other firearms — to be used as a tool for managing and defending livestock to believing that firearms also belong on a place like a college campus, which is pretty far-removed from the ranch.

Larson: Yeah, that's the big question. Like, why the college campus? And I can't say that he said a pinpoint answer. Something that we talked a lot about was, some people just feel safer with a gun on their hip, or having a weapon just for safety in their personal experience. 

Olivia Swant-Johnson: "So if you can speak kind of candidly, I guess — Do you think that campus is a good place for guns to be?"

Rep. Galt: "I do believe so. I think we did put sideboards that they have to be trained, they have to know what they're doing. And there is a lot of fears and worries that people can have that I think a gun would make a lot of people a lot more comfortable with it." 

Amestoy: When I look at the perspectives shared by both Ada Smith and Speaker Galt, I see a lot of really surprising similarities between their perspectives on gun ownership. Both of them grew up in a setting where guns were fairly common. Both spent a lot of time on ranches, and both came to see guns as "tools of the trade," really, but despite their similar backgrounds, both have arrived at very different conclusions regarding how far outside the ranch gun should be carried.

Larson: Yeah, and that's something that I found so wildly interesting. I mean, Ada is a current student, and she just believes that there's not a place on a college campus for guns; they should be kept where they traditionally belong, not in a public setting. It's not something that she believes in; you need to separate them from the arenas where they just don't have a utility as a tool. What she believes: they do not serve as a tool in a college campus.

Smith: There is a difference to me in carrying a rifle as a hunter, as a rancher, because these are two communities that I feel like I may be associated with most and where you would use a rifle. Rifles are tools for getting food or they're tools for protection from wildlife. Very last-resort type of protection. And the "carrying guns to campus," or  "around town" people, I would want to know what they thought the "tool" was for.

Amestoy: Clarise, I want you to take a step out of the story for a second with me. You're not from Montana, originally. You're an out-of-state student who I believe came into this story with some conceptions of gun culture in Montana yourself. So, to wrap this up, I'm wondering if you can kind of summarize what you learned about the beliefs and passions driving House Bill 102 in Montana. What did you expect? And what surprised you?

Larson: I'm going be honest here: My parents never owned guns. It wasn't something that was normal in my family. We were not a hunting family, and I really skeptical. I was like, "yeah, who thinks this, and why?" There are people that have been here for generations, and a gun has always been a part of their life, and I'm only here for four years. And so, it's hard for me to justify that I can fight against people like Wylie Galt who have been here for four generations, because I don't know. I think a lot of it was just me learning about why Galt feels this way, and it really taught me a lot about the utility of a gun and also the measures that go into being properly trained and the people that take it seriously, like Galt. This really changed my view about what guns mean to Montana and who take it seriously — the responsibility that is gun ownership. It really like made me feel good that there are people out there like Galt and a vast majority of Montanans that use guns as a tool and nothing more.

Amestoy: Well, Clarise, thank you for this really deep dive behind the politics of House Bill 102, and thank you for sharing your own insights with us.

Larson: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Austin. You're the best.

Amestoy: Clarise also spoke with one of Montana's senators in D.C., Democrat Jon Tester, about his thoughts on House Bill 102. Tester said he's no stranger to guns as a farmer and a former butcher shop owner for 25 years. He told Clarise he'd shoot cows and pigs every day, and that he made a living with his gun. Just like Galt and Smith, he referred to guns as a tool. But Tester expressed concern about the potential unintended consequences of pushing to allow guns on college campuses.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana: "So, a gun is a tool, and if you know how to use that tool, you can use it for good. If you don't, then it could be pretty bad, and I was just telling you that what I said earlier: once you pull that trigger, that bullet doesn't come back. It does when that bullets gonna do."

Amestoy: You can read Clarise's full report on "views from gun country" in this week's paper, out on newsstands and our website on Thursday, Sept. 30. 

The Kaimin Cast is produced and edited by me, Austin Amestoy. Reporting by Clarise Larson. 

That's it for this week's episode. Next time, the Kaimin celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with the story of a Latino UM forestry professor. I'll see you there.