GOP lawmakers advance guns bill to Senate floor

Keila Szpaller Daily Montanan
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

With much criticism from Democrats about a muddled process, a bill to expand the places where people can carry guns without a permit is headed to the floor of the Montana Senate.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Missoula Democrat, said so many different groups thought House Bill 102 shouldn’t apply to them and wanted exemptions, from bars to campuses to banks to local governments.

“It seems like maybe it shouldn’t apply to anybody,” Bennett said.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula (Provided by the Montana Legislature).

Sen. Diane Sands blasted the process. Sands said the bill clearly should have included a fiscal note since it will cost campuses to implement, pointed out that lawmakers didn’t even understand the amendments they were voting on, and said the bill, “a mess,” was rushed through the House.

“It’s not been clean in any way, shape or form,” said Sands, also a Missoula Democrat.

After many questions from legislators about both the bill and process for handling amendments, the Senate Judiciary committee voted 7-4 on party lines Tuesday to approve HB102. Chairman Keith Regier, a Kalispell Republican, pushed back against criticism of the process and said the high degree of public interest translated into significant input.

“I think you said earlier, a lot of people were interested in the bill,” Regier said.

In addition to allowing guns on campuses, the bill would remove the authority of the Montana Board of Regents over college campuses, but with exceptions. Proposed by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, the legislation heads to the Senate floor for a full vote.

In committee Tuesday, a couple different versions of one amendment failed twice, the second time after Rep. Theresa Manzella called for reconsideration. The amendment had proposed nine different strikeouts and eight different insertions.

It would have made athletic or entertainment events “open to the public with controlled access and armed security” an exception and subject to supervision by the Regents. (The current bill as drafted lists events where alcohol is allowed on campus as subject to oversight by the Regents, among other exceptions.)

The failed amendment also would have removed the need for a permit in places that sell alcohol, such as taverns, and eliminated a corresponding penalty. The committee considered this portion of the amendment once and rejected it.

However, lawmakers are not finished proposing amendments to HB102. Sen. John Esp, a Republican from Big Timber, said he plans to bring amendments to the floor to make the legislation more palatable.

Manzella will carry the bill to the floor, and she shared her personal experience in committee. In her early days in Montana, the Hamilton Republican said she was a bartender in “the middle of nowhere.” She said in closing the bar, she had night deposits to make and would have wanted to the ability to defend herself.

“I would have felt better if I had been carrying at that time,” Manzella said.

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