Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday lauded several hundred Missoula high school students for speaking out on the issue of gun control during last week’s march, saying their voices are critical to the nation’s democracy.
But he also reaffirmed his support for the Second Amendment and said local school districts should decide if they want teachers carrying guns in the classroom. And while he’d welcome a debate in the U.S. Senate over a number of firearm issues, no such debate is in the works.
“To my knowledge, right now, there’s going to be no debate on any gun legislation,” Tester told the Missoula Current during Tuesday’s media call. “The Senate is the greatest deliberative body in the world and we ought to talk about things like background checks, banning bump stocks and making sure our databases are talking to one another.”
Last week, just days after a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school, several hundred Missoula students walked out of their classes to call upon the nation’s lawmakers to address gun violence by enacting common-sense reforms.
The protest was one of dozens held across the country as the nation’s youth – all future voters – added their voices to what’s been a muddy and polarized debate on gun violence in America. In the week since their protest, at least in Montana, nothing has come from the students’ call for action.
“I think it’s critically important – and it’s a good sign for our democracy – that young people are speaking up, utilizing their First Amendment rights for free speech,” Tester said. “They’re an important part of our society and they need to understand that.”
At the same time, Tester said he would continue to defend the Second Amendment.
“I’ve made a living with a gun and a butcher shop for 20 years on the farm, and I understand how important it is for Montanans, myself included, to be able to protect your home with a gun,” Tester said. “Overall, I know that gun ownership for law-abiding citizens is critically important for Montanans.”
Tester added that the latest wave of mass shootings have become an endless and tragic story, and that mental health must be addressed. He said rural areas like Montana need more mental health professionals.
“Mental health is the biggest medical challenge we’re going to have over the next 50 years,” Tester said. “Whether we’re talking about guns or just people, it’s important that we get more folks on the ground.”
Late last week, in response to the Florida shooting, President Donald Trump suggested that arming teachers could prevent future acts of violence. That proposal, pushed by the NRA, has been met by staunch opposition, even among some conservatives.
Tester, a Democrat, said that local schools should make their own decision on whether teachers should be armed on school grounds.
“If a local school board, with the support of the local community, thinks they need to have someone with a gun in the school, whether it’s a teacher or somebody else, they need to make that decision,” Tester said. “As a former teacher, I’m not certain giving teachers guns is the right action. But if the school board feels they have the right people to do that on their staff, I’d certainly defer to them.”
Tester suggested that Congress has not properly dealt with the issue of gun violence and mass shootings. He said his conversation with the parents of the children gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School five years ago remains one of the hardest meetings he’s ever had.
“The truth is, we’re not dealing with it,” Tester said. “I hope the kids out there (in Missoula) stay involved. These young people have got things figured out, and their voices need to be heard. I hope they continue and don’t give up. Things happen in Washington, D.C., because people are giving input.”