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City Council kills proposal recommending gun lobby’s safety manual be taught to schoolchildren

Members of the Missoula City Council rejected a resolution this week that aimed to support firearm safety in Missoula.

The resolution would have directed the council to encourage Missoula schools to give presentations to first to third graders on the Be Safe Curricula produced by the Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), a pro gun lobby organization.

It also would have encouraged students and other interested people to take Hunter Safety, and for Missoula residents to “learn and upgrade” their knowledge on safe firearms storage, possession and usage.

Citing concerns over the effectiveness of the firearm safety curriculum and overstepping their power, councilors voted on the resolution 3-9, with only sponsors John Contos, Jesse Ramos and Sandra Vasecka voting for it. 

“I don’t feel like I am qualified in my elected position to move forward recommendations of particular curriculum,” said council member Stacie Anderson, chair of the Public Safety and Health Committee. “I think there’s a proper process for that. There is commonality here and I do support that commonality. I do want people to be safe around guns. I want them to be locked, and I want children not to have access to guns. I think we can all agree upon that.

“I just feel like when we start getting to particular recommendations or a particular curriculum that I don’t feel it comes from a neutral source like the health department.”

The curriculum for first to third graders would consist of a brochure hand-out following a brief presentation from teachers. The brochure emphasizes two rules for firearms: “don’t touch” and “if a friend plays with a real gun, leave and tell an adult.”

Vasecka, the primary sponsor of the resolution, said it didn’t take a stance on gun ownership. She said the curriculum is necessary as the majority of households own guns in Montana.

Vasecka cited a statistic from MSSA and from the 2003 book “Gun Laws of Montana” that state 90% of Montana households have firearms, but other recent studies have estimated household gun ownership in Montana to be around 58% to 66%.

“Even if you don’t have any firearms, it is likely that your child will go to a home that does have one. Most homes probably have their firearms safely locked up, but it is a great step to know what your child will do if they do see a firearm,” Vasecka said.

Some councilors also took issue with the grades that the gun safety curriculum is meant for. Council member Amber Sherill said she supports the age that Hunter Safety is taught at, but wouldn’t support any curriculum that teaches people at a younger age than what currently stands.

“It may not be developmentally appropriate at that age,” Sherill said. “That piece worries me. I would need to see support from pediatricians, physicians, psychologists, not from the Montana Shooting Sports Association. I would definitely have to see a curriculum from someone who is trained in developmental issues for kids.”

While city and schools have collaborated on issues before in Missoula, such as sex education programs, councilors felt it was out of their jurisdiction to suggest curricula for the schools.

 “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the City Council to suggest what the public school system should include, and I say that as a family that does own guns, and also is actively involved in gun safety education,” council member Heidi West said. “I think that it would be appropriate coming from the Board of Trustees, or from parents and PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations).”

Ramos defended the resolution saying that councilors who suggested this was out of their jurisdiction felt “ingenuine,” after the council penned a 2018 letter that encouraged students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida to continue gun activism after a deadly school shooting.

“If Missoula County Public Schools is out of our purview, then Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has to be way out of our purview,” Ramos said. “So to me it just seems inconsistent.”

But council member Gwen Jones said there’s a big difference between the two.

“The letter we wrote to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the massacre there was in support of them, it wasn’t dictating the curriculum. So it’s a big, big difference,” Jones said. “And I think it is a different step to weigh in on something when we have a local entity here in town.”

While the resolution failed, it doesn’t mean that a similar item can’t be taken up in the future, with some opponents agreeing upon various aspects of the resolution.

One part of the resolution would urge anyone considering a private sale or purchase of a firearm to consult a guide on private firearm transactions produced by MSSA that encourages private background checks among other things. 

City council President Bryan von Lossberg sponsored a now void 2016 ordinance that required background checks on all gun transactions in City limits. And while objecting to some parts of the guide, he said there is certainly “shared ground.” But he couldn’t get past supporting the curriculum.

“It’s not because of the shared ground that we have, it’s that the resolution specifically called out a curriculum to follow, and it’s not a nebulous, general sort of thing,” von Lossberg said. “It’s a specific thing, and I will concisely say that that curriculum offered is inappropriate and not proved.”

The City Council will make their final vote on the item next Monday as a part of the committee reports.