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Missoula march recognizes gun violence, urges political courage

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A group of Missoula residents donned orange and marched down Higgins Avenue to recognize National Gun Violence Awareness Day. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A group of Missoula residents donned their orange hunting vests, orange scarves and orange anything on Thursday night before gathering at the north end of Higgins Avenue to stand in solidarity with others in the U.S. to observe Gun Violence Awareness Day.

While New Yorkers illuminated the Empire State Building in orange to honor those lost to gun violence, Missoulians did the same with the peace sign on Waterworks Hill before marching through the downtown streets, calling for an end to gun violence and lobbying for legislation to achieve it.

“I’m here because I’m a mom and was a teacher for almost 30 years,” said Linda Pilsworth. “For all the parents and kids killed at Newtown (Connecticut), I’m showing support for them. As a teacher, I did shelter-in-place drills with my students, and I hope things like that don’t happen again.”

Those of a like mind gathered in solidarity in city’s across the country Thursday night, from Union Station in Denver to a bridge in downtown Dallas. The day before, several in Missoula noted, another school shooting took place, this time at a California university.

Tom Platt, a hunter and gun owner, donned his camouflage orange vest and joined the march down Higgins Avenue. He named Hadiya Pendelton, a Chicago girl who was shot and killed while at a park in 2013 and whose death helped spark the “wear orange” movement.

She would have turned 19 on Thursday.

“When something that comes up that’s important and momentous, you have to find the time,” said Platt. “This is based on the birthday of a child who was killed by gun violence, so this is a national thing, and I’m glad we’re doing it here in Missoula.”

Missoula has seen its share of gun violence in recent years. In 2015, Kalee Scolatti, 34, and Anthony Dupras, 46, were both shot and killed on a Wednesday evening at Scolatti’s home on Brooks Street. That same year, Gilbert Jack Barry was shot to death by the Clark Fork River.

Platt, like others who gathered for the Missoula rally, is calling for sensible gun laws that include background checks and additional research into gun violence. Despite school shootings and the rise in gun violence, such measures have been legislatively elusive, and achieving change will require strength in numbers, he said.

“It’s kind of disempowering when you see so much national concern and so little national action,” Platt said. “The NRA has intimidated a lot of elected officials. There’s a lot of support for more sensible measures, like background checks and research, but it’s going to take a lot of people calling for that, giving politicians support, and maybe we’ll start taking some steps.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen agreed. He returned last week from a White House summit on ending gun violence, where he stood as the only representative from Montana. He suggested it was time the state moves the dial and recognizes the toll gun violence takes on the nation.

Last year, 33,000 people were killed by a firearm, he said.

“It’s shocking, it’s appalling and it makes no sense,” Engen said. “But I think we’re starting to turn the corner. I think that folks are finally starting to speak up and recognize the fact that while the Second Amendment is certainly a critical component to our Bill of Rights, we have other rights as well, and those rights regard our capacity to live without fear of dying at random moments by violent means.”

Engen said the balance of the debate has been held by a powerful and well-funded gun lobby, political influence and elected officials who consider gun violence “the third rail of politics.” But where political leaders once were fearful of taking a stand on the issue, he added, a grassroots lobby has gained momentum, giving them the courage to take action.

“There’s courage, leadership and hope,” Engen said. “We make change at the local level and we drive that change up the food chain, and eventually that change sticks. Change is happening, and change is going to come.”

In Missoula at least, the City Council has taken steps to consider adopting an ordinance requiring background checks for all guns sales and transfers in city limits. While it’s a small step, those behind the measure believe even a small effort can affect a different outcome.

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Missoula Mayor John Engen says change in coming thanks to a grass-roots movement that’s giving political leaders courage to take a  stand against gun violence. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg, one of the measure’s sponsors, encouraged Thursday’s crowd by saying he’d return the ordinance on background checks to the Public Safety and Health Committee this month. The last city council found the votes to move the measure out of committee for a full public hearing last year, but six members of the council are new and their appetite for background checks hasn’t been tested.

“I’ll be putting in the referral to bring the background check ordinance back to committee,” von Lossberg said. “I’ve talked to the committee chair, and we’re scheduling it for June 15. If there’s support to move it out of committee, we would have another public hearing like we did back in October.”

As many as 35 downtown businesses hung orange signs in their windows Thursday reading “we can end gun violence.” Members of the Montana Chapter of Moms Demand Action also plan to continue their lobby for sensible gun laws, and they’ve found several allies at the municipal level willing to pick up the effort.

“We’re not against guns – we support violence prevention and gun safety,” said Heidi Kendall. “Day after day we have these shootings. It’s absolutely unacceptable. They’re children, adolescents, adults, family members, teachers and principals. We can’t let this go on anymore. We have to keep standing up.”

Others are looking to take the legislation further and are calling on Montana’s Congressional delegation and statewide leaders to help tackle the issue. This, they noted, is an election year.

“At a minimum, I hope they will not pass silly bills like allowing guns on campus and in bars and that kind of stuff,” said Lynne Dickman. “I’m hoping for a background check that’s reasonable and closing the gun-show loophole. I’d like to see something happen with that, and I don’t see the need for AR-15s. Sandy Hook wouldn’t have happened without a weapon like that.”