- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Billings Gazette, March 27, on Montanans needing to find common ground on how to prevent gun violence:

Four years ago, the Montana Legislature’s Interim Law and Justice Committee studied a gap in the state’s reporting to the national information database that tracks individuals who are prohibited by federal law from buying guns because of criminal convictions or civil court commitments for mental illness that makes them a danger to themselves or others.

The committee didn’t recommend legislation to close this gap because not a single Republican on the panel supported it.

In the 2017 Legislature, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, introduced House Bill 480, which specified how Montana should report district court commitments to the database and also how an individual could legally have the firearms restriction lifted. The bill would have cost the general fund nothing, and the Department of Justice said it wouldn’t have a substantial fiscal impact because it was automating the reporting system.

At a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February 2017, disability rights advocates testified in favor of Smith’s bill; no one testified in opposition. But the GOP majority committee tabled and killed the bill.

The 2019 Legislature will see another bill, similar to Smith’s, this time from Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who has already requested a draft.

“The public awareness is growing,” MacDonald told The Gazette this week. “I’m hoping for bipartisan support.”

“People who have been adjudicated a danger to themselves and others can walk into a hardware store and buy a gun,” MacDonald said at the March for Our Lives rally Saturday in downtown Billings.

MacDonald was serving in the Montana House when she chaired the interim committee in 2014 and received a letter from the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., which is based in Newtown, Connecticut, the community that suffered the devastating elementary school massacre. The letter noted that Montana’s federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run a background check through the FBI database when transferring a firearm.

“A background check is only as good as the records in the database,” the foundation wrote, explaining its campaign to ensure that records of people who legally shouldn’t have guns are actually entered into the database.

Montana has never submitted required mental illness commitment records, putting it among only a handful of states that fail to comply with this aspect of the federal background check law.

In Montana, most gunshot deaths are due to self-inflicted wounds. Whatever state law can do to keep guns away from disturbed individuals will likely prevent more suicides than homicides. Saving lives should be the goal of gun laws and mental health laws.

It’s important to protect the rights of individuals committed by a court to mental health treatment. The bill that Smith introduced and that MacDonald plans provides that individuals may petition the District Court to restore their gun rights if their circumstances change. The prohibition on gun possession wouldn’t apply to people ordered hospitalized on a 72-hour-hold for observation, nor would it apply to people who voluntarily seek mental health care.

Will MacDonald succeed in 2019?

If the marchers who rallied Saturday in Billings, Helena, Missoula, Bozeman and Great Falls keep advocating for policies to curb gun violence, better background checks have a chance in the legislature. We salute the students, parents, educators and other Montanans who marched peacefully Saturday for school and community safety. Montanans disagree about gun laws, but need to find common ground in common-sense changes that will prevent more tragedies.

Change won’t happen without strong voices and hard work from those who see the problems of the status quo. As Billings West High student Grace Price said Saturday: “We have the power to foster a future where students only have to worry about being students, not about being a victim, a future where teachers can focus on teaching and don’t have to worry about how they would handle a school shooter situation.”

That power needs to be directed to voting. Ask your legislative candidates where they stand and what they have done or will do to keep Montanans safe at school, at home and on our streets.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2pMCCck


Montana Standard, March 25, on the state Department of Environmental Quality needing to get its own house in order:

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality last week invoked the power given it by the Legislature to hold mining companies and executives accountable when the state and its citizens are left holding the bag.

Hecla Mining Co. in 2001 appointed its current president, Phillips Baker Jr., as a director of the firm, despite the fact that he was an executive at the failed Pegasus Gold, which left several large-scale environmental messes behind in Montana when it declared bankruptcy in 1998.

So DEQ last week told Hecla that until it pays for the necessary work or otherwise resolves Pegasus‘ violations, its plans for the Montanore mine near Libby and the Rock Creek mine near Noxon will be put on hold.

We see merit in both of the mines Hecla is proposing. But Hecla knew the risks in bringing on someone like Phillips Baker Jr., former Pegasus executive who is now Hecla’s president.

Baker may be proficient as a mining executive - indeed, he’s chairman of the National Mining Association - but part of mining these days is taking responsibility for the environmental damage you cause. Pegasus left the federal and state governments with the well-documented Zortman-Landusky nightmare when it went bankrupt in 1998. Closer to home, both the Beal Mountain mine at the headwaters of German Gulch here in Butte-Silver Bow County and the Basin Creek mine near Boulder represent major liabilities to the state, which got left with those headaches as well.

First of all, we hope and trust Hecla can negotiate a settlement with the state that allows its current projects to go forward responsibly.

Second, we’re holding our applause for DEQ since the agency’s own bad actions have left us more of a mess right here in Butte than we should have to accept.

We’re talking about the Montana Pole Plant site, where DEQ for many years led concerned Butte citizens to believe that its “bioremediation” of the site was working. Only recently was it made clear to Butte that indeed the long treatment procedure was not effective in cleaning up the dioxin on the site. DEQ’s solution? Bury it on the site and cap it - leaving a long-term problem.

Perhaps if DEQ had acted with the dispatch on this site that it did on a similar site near Bozeman - where it quickly moved to bury and cap the dioxin - it might be viewed differently. But after so much time has passed, we believe it’s fair to expect DEQ to remove the dioxin completely and transport it to a repository designed to handle such wastes.

Until then, we see DEQ acting every bit as badly as the “bad actor” it penalized last week.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2uupqyc


Bozeman Daily Chronicle, March 25, on drunk driving being a blemish on Montana’s image:

Montana enjoys the unenviable position of dead last among the states for its efforts to curb DUIs as rated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There are state rankings for just about any measure you can think of. And it’s easy to dismiss many, if not most, as irrelevant.

But this one shouldn’t be ignored. MADD is a credible organization with a long history of battling drunk driving. Its annual Report to the Nation should be taken seriously.

The report singled out Montana for its lack of mandatory ignition interlocks for all DUI offenders and its sparse use of sobriety checkpoints where drivers are randomly checked for their blood alcohol content. The ignition interlocks are installed at the offender’s expense and require a driver to give an alcohol-free breath sample before the car will start. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they reduce repeat offenses by 67 percent.

Montana was also singled out because it has the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation with at least one driver with over the blood alcohol limit involved in 45 percent of all fatal accidents in 2016. Another 66 people lost their lives in these accidents last year. That’s a lot of deaths that could have been prevented with tougher laws.

It can be argued that Montana’s attitudes toward drinking and driving are part of a longstanding culture. Because of the libertarian streak in our politics, we were the last state to ban open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles throughout the state. Those attitudes persist and there will continue to be resistance to imposing stricter DUI measures.

But this is a state with a bright future. Quality of life highlighted by world-class outdoor opportunities, good schools and low overall crime rates are attracting more businesses - the kind of clean businesses that provide good-paying jobs and have little impact on the environment.

But our record on drunk driving is a glaring blemish on that image.

Because of our vast system of narrow rural roads, we may always have higher traffic fatality rates than more populated states. But when it comes to DUI policy and alcohol-related traffic deaths, we should be able to do better than dead last.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/2IbkCA1

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