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City, county leaders seek options for public meetings given state’s new gun laws

Hosting city and county public meetings in the county courthouse would eliminate the threat of guns since it remains a gun-free zone. County officials said the technology in place at the courthouse is similar to what’s used in City Council chambers. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

City and county leaders in Missoula are beginning to plan for a phased reopening, including a likely return to public meetings held in person. But when the time comes, the landscape will have shifted from the days before the pandemic.

A bill signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte permitting guns in nearly every sector of society stands prominent among the changes. College campuses and public buildings are no longer gun-free zones, meaning public meetings will soon include firearms, either seen or unseen.

“A year ago, I would have dismissed enhanced security at City Council meetings,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “At this point, with insurrections and changes at the Legislature and such, I’m concerned about public safety and council safety, and my own safety. There are concerns for staff as well.”

State law now allows nearly anyone in Montana to carry a concealed weapon without a permit and take it nearly anywhere they go, be it a bank, a bar or a university classroom.

The authority of local governments to declare gun-free zones is also a thing of the past, and that has elected officials at the local level concerned. As they work toward reopening post pandemic, hosting “hybrid” public meetings may become the norm.

“Barring some significant change that we don’t anticipate, anyone could pack heat in a public meeting in a public building. All that just changes the landscape,” said Engen. “I want the public to be confident in their safety coming to a public meeting. I don’t want people to be discouraged from public service because they think they’re putting their lives at risk.”

City and county officials this week began discussing possible safety solutions as they consider returning to in-person meetings. The issues at play include social distancing, technology needed to live stream any hearings, and finding meeting space where guns are still prohibited.

Early options could include secured entrances or metal detectors. While the state’s new gun laws allow firearms in most locations, it still bans them in schools, federal buildings and courtrooms. The latter makes the Missoula County Courthouse an enticing solution.

“One of the advantages of the courthouse is that it’s going to be a gun-free zone,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “There may be some opportunity for the city to utilize some of our meeting space in the courthouse. If one of the goals, given what’s happening in the Legislature, is to find a place where folks aren’t going to be packing heat, the courthouse is one of those.”

At some point in the future, the city and county may co-locate to the old downtown federal building, though that is still years away. Until then, elected officials will have to contend with potentially angry constituents who may also be carrying a weapon.

Threats against local elected officials is nothing new, and the past is ripe with examples, from threats made to the entire City Council to letters threatening harm to individual council members.

“You mix anger with a gun and sometimes regretful things happen,” Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said in February. “We have to make hard decisions that anger people and that’s how it is. It’s a bad idea to mix that decision making with the potential that people in the audience have guns.”

Hosting city and county public meetings in the county courthouse would eliminate the threat of guns since it remains a gun-free zone. County officials said the technology in place at the courthouse is similar to what’s used in City Council chambers.

Hybrid public meetings could include the option for in-person attendance or remote participation. The meetings would continue to be live streamed and posted on social media, from YouTube to public access television.

“I think Zoom has actually increased the opportunity for public participation,” Engen said. “We have more people who join us than would otherwise trot down to the City Council meeting. I think access is a little more fair in that format.”

Missoula County is eyeing June as a possible start to hybrid meetings. The city hasn’t set a date.

“I’d like us to generally to be on the same page and maybe look at economies of scale for public meetings in particular,” Engen told commissioners. “I think it would be worth us getting staff together at some point to talk about what we’re doing.”

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