Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Florida high school has most of Montana’s congressional delegation and 2018 federal candidates speaking about mental health reform, but few supporting any gun control.
Montana’s U.S. senators and 2018 candidates for Senate and House told The Gazette there’s a need for congressional action to deal with the nation’s seemingly endless string of mass shootings.
The latest gunman, a 19-year-old man with a legally purchased semiautomatic assault rifle, killed 17 people Wednesday at a Parkland, Florida, high school. But agreement on what that congressional action should be stopped at improving mental health care and preventing people with mental illnesses from acquiring guns.
“Our schools should be safe places for our kids, not tragic halls of violence. We have a mental health crisis in this country and Congress must take action to get folks the help they need so we can better prevent these mass shootings from happening,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat up for re-election this year.
Tester supports a ban on “bump stocks,” a simple add-on that can make a semiautomatic weapon behave like an automatic. The device made it possible for a shooter in Las Vegas to kill 58 people at an outdoor country music concert in October. Congress briefly talked about banning bump stocks after the shooting, but nothing came of the talk.
Tester also supports closing the background check loophole, which allows a gun sale to proceed without a background check if the FBI hasn’t completed the check in 72 hours. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., had introduced a bill to close the loophole last fall. That bill lacks support.
Tester has supported bringing more mental health officials into rural communities. And he’s supported adding more beds to facilities that provide mental health care.
Montana’s congressional delegation hasn’t introduced any type of gun control legislation. And in the past they have been rated favorably by the National Rifle Association, which issues high marks to politicians who don’t challenge Second Amendment rights. Tester received an “A-" grade from the NRA when he ran for re-election in 2012. In 2014, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines received an “A+” from the NRA. Rep. Greg Gianforte received an “A” rating from the NRA last year.
After the Vegas shooting, all three lawmakers told The Gazette they weren’t ready to support bump-stock legislation, although Daines and Tester were both open to hearings on regulating the devices.
Sen. Daines said Congress should look at ways to address mass shootings other than gun control.
“As this investigation continues, we will learn more about the man who committed this horrible shooting. And as we do learn more, we must remember that any individual who is intent on harming others will do so regardless of what laws we have in place,” Daines said. “I believe it is critical we discuss how we prevent these events from happening. However, I cannot support controversial firearm restriction proposals that would undermine our Second Amendment rights and that many experts believe would be ineffective in preventing violent crimes.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte emailed a response to The Gazette on Thursday:
“My heart mourns, and I join millions of Americans praying for the victims, their families, friends, and classmates, the Parkland community, and all affected by this senseless tragedy. I am grateful for the bravery of those who acted heroically to save lives. More details will emerge as to how and why this killer struck. Regardless, officials at every level of government must work together to ensure troubled individuals can be addressed before their behavior can escalate into such a coarse, unthinkable tragedy.”
Democratic candidates were more ready than Republicans to limit access to assault rifles and to prohibit bump stocks.
“Kathleen does see a role for Congress in preventing mass shootings and does think it’s a time for action and not just words,” said Andrew Markoff, manager of Kathleen Williams’ campaign for U.S. House. “Her family’s owned shotguns and firearms. They’ve never seen a need to buy and AR-15. So, Kathleen would support restrictions on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.”
A Bozeman Democrat, Williams underscored the NRA’s $350,000 investment in Gianforte’s 2017 special election, which was also mentioned Thursday in a New York Times graphic displaying the NRA’s top recipients.
The NRA has spent heavily on elections involving Montana Republicans serving in Congress, but much less on Democrats. Daines has benefited from $77,580 in NRA suport. In the recent past, the NRA spent $96,468 supporting former Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, currently U.S. secretary of Interior. The group spent $138,959 supporting former Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg over six general elections and $72,120 on former Republican Sen. Conrad Burns. Regardless of donation amounts, Montana's federal lawmakers have rarely received less than an 'A' rating from the NRA, indicating their votes haven't disappointed the gun lobby.
Tester hasn't received NRA money, though he has received $2,000 from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which bills itself as the "the firearms industry trade association."
If the NRA gives Williams an “F” rating, Markoff said his boss is fine with that, saying the nation’s most powerful gun lobby has taken an extremist position when it comes to congressional action on mass shootings.
“If they are going to give Kathleen an ‘F,’ she’ll take that ‘F’ as a badge that stands for fearless,” Markoff said.
Billings Democrat John Heenan, a U.S. House candidate, issued a full-page statement on mass shootings, tracing the issue back to the October shooting in Las Vegas and the beginning of his campaign. He called for closing the gun show loophole, which exempts sales by private sellers, like those selling at gun shows, from background checks. He also supported banning bump stocks. People convicted of violent crimes should also be banned from owning firearms, he said.
“Importantly, we need Federal support and funding for mental health centers and services throughout Montana and throughout our country. Resources to support effective violence prevention strategies, such as community policing, probation and parole officers and access to high-quality, affordable health care services are essential,” Heenan said in his paper. “Our law enforcement officials and prosecutors need the funding and support to implement the laws and programs that can and should work."
Missoula Democrat Grant Kier zeroed in on mental health.
“Mass killings are a national problem, and Congress absolutely has a role to play in understanding and working to prevent these atrocities," Kier said. "We can begin with stricter enforcement of existing laws, investing in (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) research to better understand the causes of mass killings and investing in stronger and more comprehensive mental health care in our society.”
Billings Democrat Lynda Moss challenged the NRA to support firearm safety measures that protect children. She said Montana hunting traditions must be protected as gun violence is addressed.
"Congress indeed has a role to to play, and I would support congressional action in many areas," Moss said. "These include expanded background checks, making sure men and women under domestic violence protection orders cannot own guns, advocate for safer storage of firearms, like trigger locks and locked storage. Additionally, I would champion for increased mental health spending and access. Suicide is a major cause of death for both adults and teenagers in Montana, and guns are often used."
Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Tester for U.S. Senate were committed to preventing further firearms regulation.
“I will not support any legislation that further restricts the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Billings Republican Russ Fagg said. “Mental illness is the root cause of so many of these tragedies, and Congress has an obligation to ensure that the mental health needs of American citizens are being addressed — especially in rural states like Montana.”
Big Sky’s Troy Downing said Congress needs to work with states to prevent mass shootings and to address mental health issues. Concerning the latest Florida shooting, the Republican said there was enough information about the shooter available to the FBI that they should have intervened long before the attack.
“I oppose any and all efforts to use these tragic events committed by individuals who clearly have mental issues as a platform for more gun control. With over 10,000 laws on the books controlling guns, adding more clearly won't solve the problem,” Downing said. “Does Congress have a role? Yes, but a limited one, one that should be focused on inquiring why other federal officials (FBI) failed and what localities need to ensure those with mental issues can't buy a gun.”
Senate candidate Matt Rosendale, Montana’s current state auditor and a former state legislator, said mental health legislation was needed.
“This terrible act carried out by a deeply troubled individual, who was previously reported to authorities as a risk, shows clearly why we must do better to recognize early and treat those struggling with mental illness,” Rosendale said. “I have worked as state auditor to support legislation at the state level, that would help promote better access to proper treatment for those with mental illness."
Dr. Albert Olszewski, a Republican Senate candidate from Kalispell, spoke to the need for health professionals to better identify people likely to harm others and to pass that information on without harming that person’s right to privacy. It’s a reporting obligation medical professionals already have when children are in danger.
“If someone has a mental issue and they’re harmful to themselves or others, we want to prevent them from getting weapons or any tool they can use to harm anybody,” Olszewski said. “We will always balance these issues of public safety and privacy. People will be willing to let it happen, and as long as we can avoid abusing that power and stewardship.”
Also a state legislator, Olszewski called for “hardening the target,” that is making schools more difficult for shooters to enter and attack.