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A nonpartisan town hall organized by a group of high school students in Helena brought together five congressional candidates and about 100 local residents Friday evening to discuss gun violence in schools. 

The “lockdown generation,” as one of the local students calls today's high schoolers, has been energized by the Valentine's Day shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and 17 wounded by a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle. After the shooting, marches and waves of political activism have gone through schools and students like wildfire. 

Organized by Helena Youth Against Gun Violence and held in the Helena Middle School auditorium, Friday’s town hall was intended to be a “voter-education” event, according to co-founder Clara McRae. All 17 of Montana's congressional candidates were invited to attend. 

“Students are going to be of voting age in June,” Thomas said, and providing a forum for candidates to speak directly to high school students is the central goal of the event.

“We’ve all grown up with this issue,” McRae said.

McRae and Mariah Thomas, the other co-founder of the group, are both juniors at Capital High School. McRae is a sixth-generation Montanan, and both girls’ families hunt. This is not an issue that they have taken lightly.

“The goal is to reduce all mass shootings to zero,” McRae said. “Realistically, it’s to prevent the shootings that could easily be stopped.”

While many in the community have been supportive of the students in Helena Youth Against Gun Violence, the group has also received some pushback. 

“We’re anti-gun violence and they hear anti-gun,” McRae said. Thomas chimed in “We’re not anti-gun. We’re anti-violence.”

In preparation for the event, the students developed a list of candidate questions that focused on campaign funding from the NRA, how to make schools safer, suicide rates in Montana and bipartisan gun legislation.

Amanda Penley, Noah Whitehorn, Amalie Hodges and Noah Berthelson acted as moderators for the evening. The collective intention was to understand what the candidates believed about changing the way society thinks about gun violence.

“The only way we are going to accomplish anything is by open conversation,” Penley said as she opened the forum.

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House Green Party candidate Doug Campbell said he worries about the federal government being able to pinpoint gun owners on a map and suggested a third-party intermediary system for background checks that would take and hold data, rather than giving that information directly to the federal government. He also made a point that he was “not taking contributions from anyone” to put “all Montanans on a level playing field.”

Senate Green Party candidate Steve Kelly described how the Green Party was a response to a broken two-party system.

“The Green Party offers an alternative of non-violence and new discussion,” Kelly said. He also spoke forcefully against listening to and believing (without fact-checking) the mainstream media, who he said were only trying to “get ratings” and “make money.”

House Democratic candidate Grant Kier focused on the idea that legislators should not focus on the “next election cycle,” but on future generations. Kier spent much of his time speaking to the idea of bipartisan change and making a difference through understanding the problem, including utilizing objective data to better treat the root of gun violence.

House Democratic candidate John Meyer discussed two lawsuits he had brought against Gov. Steve Bullock and the federal government to open more bison hunting outside of Yellowstone and provide more land for hunting. He also admitted to bullying a boy names "Steven" in fifth grade, offered a public apology and then wept on stage. 

House Democratic Candidate Kathleen Williams discussed her record of voting against pro-gun legislation and a desire to leave a “healthful, peaceful world” for the future generation, commending the students at the event in their desire for change. Williams also said that there was a “very bright line” between “traditional” firearms and assault weapons.

Libertarian Senate candidate Rick Breckenridge, House Democratic candidates John Heenan and Jared Pettinato, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester, ex-House Democratic candidate Lynda Moss and Libertarian House candidate Elinor Swanson all sent statements to be read at the forum as well.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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