Austin Amestoy: Before we dive in, a warning, this episode contains discussions and descriptions of gun violence and suicide. Listener discretion is advised.
From the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent, student-run newspaper, this is the Kaimin Cast for the week of Sept. 6. I'm Austin Amestoy.
In a blockbuster session under a newly-united Republican government, the Montana Legislature passed a series of bills promising sweeping changes to life in Montana. House Bill 102 was one of the first signed by Governor Greg Gianforte and seeks to permit the carrying of firearms nearly anywhere in the state, including on college campuses.
But the bill quickly faced lawsuits from state employees and the university system, who claimed the bill unconstitutionally limits the rights of the state's Board of Regents. This week, Kaimin news editor Griffen Smith joined me to explain HB 102, its potential ramifications for Montana's public universities and how students are reacting.
Amestoy: Hey, Griffen, welcome to The Kaimin Cast. How are you doing today?
Griffen Smith: I'm good, Austin. Thank you for having me on.
Amestoy: Good. We're glad to have you. Before we actually get into the nitty gritty, just like I did with Mariah last week, I'd love if you could tell us what you do at the Kaimin.
Smith: At the Kaimin I'm a junior news editor and reporter, so I report stories and I also edit some too for our reporters at the Kaimin.
Amestoy: We're at it again this week with another cover story with some complicated "legalese" at its heart. So, to start, I'm wondering if you could walk me and our listeners through HB 102. What is it exactly? And what was its history in the Legislature earlier this year?
Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell: "Next, we'll open the hearing on HB 102. Representative..."
Smith: Earlier this year, when the Montana Legislature met, HB 102 was introduced by Seth Berglee of Joliet House District 58.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet: "Thank you, Mr. Chair, members of the committee, any of the public that might be watching. It is an honor to be in front of the Senate Judiciary yet again."
Smith: And the bill essentially, in his words, would end all "gun-free zones" in the state, meaning areas like banks and bars and also college campuses that have for decades not had guns available.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet: "So I think, from a lawmaking standpoint, what's the alternative? Right, we're looking at school shootings, we're looking at mass shootings."
Smith: In the January 20 Senate Judiciary Committee, Austin Knudsen, the Montana Attorney General, added himself as a proponent to the bill.
Attorney General Austin Knudsen: "For the record Attorney General Austin Knudsen here on behalf of myself and on behalf of the Montana Department of Justice in strong support of HB 102."
Smith: There was not much talk about campuses, per se, in his speech, but it was more geared to individual freedom on that note.
Knudsen: "Gun-free zones don't work. We know this. The science bears that out. We also know that concealed carry permit holders are the safest segment of the population in America."
Smith: We did have some normal Montanans who testified before the bill.
Tim Sowa: "My name is Tim Sowa."
Garrett Bacon: "I'm Garrett Bacon, 'B-A-C-O-N'"
Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, R-Great Falls: "Jesse Slaughter, 'S-L...'"
Gary Marbut: "Gary Marbut, 'M-A-R-B-U-T.'"
Smith: But we also had some other interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, also testified in favor of HB 102.
Amestoy: Griffen, during the bill's journey through the Legislature, who did we see coming out against the bill?
Smith: A lot of university and college groups. You saw people from the Montana University System testifying against it.
Kevin McRae, Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education: "We know that in Montana, death by firearm is the cause of suicide for 72% of the cases."
Smith: You saw groups from student government coming to attest against it.
Allison Reinhardt, Montana Associated Students: "Some people feel safer carrying a gun, while others feel safe knowing that there's not a gun present in the room."
Smith: And then you just had students who were telling stories of their time testifying against it.
Amestoy: What was the vote exactly? And when was the bill signed into law?
Smith: So the bill was signed into law on Feb. 18, and the vote was directly on party lines; 67 Republicans voted for it, 33 Democrats against it.
Amestoy: I know Griffen, in your reporting, you found one particular student account from testimony at the Legislature this year that was pretty striking. So I'm wondering who was that student and what did they have to say?
Daisy Khoury: "My name is Daisy Khoury and I am a concerned student at Montana State University."
Smith: A student at MSU, she described in detail the suicide of a close friend of hers while she was present.
Khoury: "When I was 13 years old, one of my best friends committed suicide in front of me. He shot himself in the head with a handgun. In an instant, lives were changed."
Smith: While she misses her friend, she also described in detail how it affected her and still affects her to this day.
Khoury: "I was suicidal, I was hospitalized. I am a survivor of horrific gun violence. My journey continues, and has brought me here today to oppose HB 102 from passing. Guns have no place on a college campus, or near any school."
Smith: She was adamant not to have guns at Montana State University.
Amestoy: Now we know some of the main players in the game that was HB 102. And you've explained it a little bit. But, you know, the bill also contains more details about where guns can be carried and where they can't in the state. And some of those details don't apply to college campuses. So could you run me through where the bill allows concealed carry now and where it doesn't?
Smith: Yeah, so there are still some locations, government locations, mostly, where concealed carry is not allowed, and that would be state prisons, correctional facilities, county detention facilities, public airports, federal buildings, private property where owners say no, essentially, and courthouses where judges say no — that recently happened in Great Falls; the judge said no to guns in the courthouse with the new HB 102 — and schools that say no.
Amestoy: And the reason we're talking about HB 102, though, is its impact on college campuses, and I'm wondering, could you tell us how the bill is worded in such a way that is of concern to the university system?
Smith: In HB 102, there is a specific section — section six —that has to do directly with the Montana University System, and it essentially says that the university system doesn't have authority to regulate guns on campus.
Amestoy: What's the idea behind the Legislature saying that? Do they have some kind of legal backing to say that the university system can't regulate its campuses when it comes to guns?
Smith: Well, they go directly to Article II of the Montana State Constitution, which is the Second Amendment in there. And they argue the Second Amendment is at least all-powerful when it comes to other government beings and cannot interfere with it.
Amestoy: Now, Griffen, this sounds all like a pretty radical departure from current gun policy at the University of Montana.
Smith: It really is. So unless you are a law enforcement officer, you cannot bring a gun on campus at the University of Montana. There are two exceptions. The main exception is you are allowed to store a weapon at the police headquarters and take it out whenever you want. You can also legally keep it in your car as long as it's unloaded, locked and your car is locked.
Amestoy: So that's what policy is like at MUS campuses right now, and that's still the case. Now, HB 102 was set to go into effect on June 1, but something stops that from happening.
Smith: After a May meeting with the Montana Board of Regents, the board sued the state legislature arguing that the Board of Regents is also a part of the Constitution and Article X, and therefore, they have sole authority over the university as written in the Constitution. And this court case is in District Court and Lewis and Clark County under Judge Mike McMahan.
Amestoy: So McMahon enjoined parts of HB 102. Which parts are in effect and which parts are not, currently?
Smith: The section about concealed carry is in effect, and we can see that in effect today. But section six is currently enjoined on an indefinite injunction, depending on the result of the court case.
Amestoy: So, what question is the court supposed to decide, exactly, when it comes to HB 102?
Smith: Well, it's the question of who controls firearms on campus, which, both sides have said is a larger question of who controls the universities. The argument between the two is Article II of the Montana State Constitution ratifies the Second Amendment, and Article X of the Montana Constitution ratifies the Board of Regents' control over the universities. So, they're really clashing in this lawsuit.
Amestoy: We know that this law is not in effect at universities in Montana — at least, not until the court potentially decides to block that portion of HB 102 or let it through. In the meantime, though, students are back in class at UM and, had this lawsuit not been filed, it's likely there would be concealed firearms on campus right now. Griffen, you were out on the first day of classes on Aug. 30. What were students saying about this issue?
Smith: Well, before prompted, there's not a lot of information out there that students know on HB 102. The students that didn't know that HB 102 existed, most of them did not know that there was a lawsuit involved with it and thought that there were guns on campus that first day of school. When digging into it more, not a lot of people were in full support of HB 102, though many do support guns. Halston Witt, a freshman biology major from South Dakota, told me that she's grown up with guns for most of her life. One of her first Christmas presents was a shotgun. But, after deciding to go to the University of Montana, and seeing the option of bringing a gun, she decided not to and didn't know that there was options to leave her gun on the UMPD locker until after she got there for orientation.
Amestoy: But had HB 102 gone into effect, was Halston interested in bringing that gun to campus?
Smith: Yeah, but not in her dorm. She said that she was concerned for other people on campus not being comfortable with firearms, and she said if she wasn't from rural South Dakota, she probably wouldn't have known firearms as much as she did now.
Amestoy: So there's a lot of nuanced opinions about HB 102 among students, at least. And I know that in your coverage, you also had the chance to speak with some mental health experts on campus because the mental health argument and the discussion of guns and gun suicides in Montana was a big part of HB 102's course through the Legislature. So, what were some of the concerns that those experts on campus told you when it comes to HB 102 and the potential of mixing guns into campus life?
Smith: From the Curry Health Center, Tracee Anderson, the interim director, said that many students come onto campus with anxiety, trepidation, uncertainty, every year. And there are many mental health issues that the counselors and UMPD have to respond to each time, each year. But, with more guns and more accessibility to guns on campus, both UMPD and the Curry Health Center had concerns for suicide.
Amestoy: With all that said, Griffen, you've been covering HB 102 in some capacity since it first started charging through the Legislature, and here we are nearly five months later, and we've had a lot of time to chew on the bill and the implications of concealed guns on campus. There's passion on both sides of this issue — gun rights, public safety — and that passion, we know, comes from many places — polarization in politics, national influence, money, cultural, personal beliefs — but I'm wondering, based on the people you've talked to and the stories you've heard, in your opinion, does it really matter what the district court decides on this particular bill? You know, is this a closing chapter in the story of gun rights in Montana?
Smith: No, it's not likely this will close the gun rights debate. In fact, this is just a stepping stone in the legal process. Both sides are likely to appeal HB 102, to the Montana Supreme Court out of district court — at least, that's what both sides have said.
Amestoy: And what happens from there?
Smith: From there, we'll get a decision from the Montana Supreme Court on it. And that's not even a guarantee that will finalize the decision. The biggest takeaway for me is that a lot of people own guns in Montana. It's the number one per capita percentage of people who own guns in the country, and that comes with a lot of weight. We have a very high suicide rate, and we have a lot of young people committing suicide with guns. So, trying to find a balancing act is what I've seen a lot of people looking for and there's really two sides of the debate.
Amestoy: Well, thank you for your reporting, Griffen. There's a lot more work for us to do from here.
Smith: Thank you, Austin.
Amestoy: Throughout the fall semester, the Montana Kaimin will publish a series of stories on HB 102 exploring the bill's potential ramifications for campuses and students and taking a close look at Montana's history and relationship with guns. You can find our coverage from our series, "In the Crosshairs," in our print paper and online at montanakaimin.com.
Griffen's full story on the history and status of HB 102 will debut in this week's paper due on newsstands and online on Thursday, Sept. 9. The Kaimin Cast is produced and edited by me, Austin Amestoy. Reporting by Griffen Smith.
That's it for this week's episode. Next time, a Kaimin look into the shutdown of a major UM sorority. I'll see you there.