State Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, is sponsoring a bill that would change state law to allow firearms to be stored in locked vehicles on school properties.
The legislation was partly prompted by the near-expulsion of a Columbia Falls High School student in 2010.
In another push against schools being “gun free zones,” House Bill 384 also would give school districts the ability to have firearms in locked containers and allow for firearms instructional activities.
O’Neil said the bill was mostly drafted by Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
Marbut intervened in the case of Demari DeReu, a 16-year-old at the time who was nearly expelled after she inadvertently left an unloaded rifle in the trunk of her car while it was parked on Columbia Falls High School property.
The matter attracted national attention, and about 150 people, most of them backing DeReu, attended an expulsion hearing that ended with the school board voting not to expel her.
The school district’s policies were based on state law that was in turn based on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which required schools receiving federal funding to expel for at least a year students who have brought or possessed a firearm at school. The federal law, however, included an exception for firearms “lawfully stored inside a locked vehicle on school property.”
At DeReu’s expulsion hearing, O’Neil told the audience that he would draft a bill clarifying state law, and his proposal was met with applause.
O’Neil said he supports the Montana Shooting Sports Association, “so I was glad to carry it for them and Demari.”
The bill will have a hearing this morning before the House Judiciary Committee.
“Most of the people I talk to are very appreciative of it, and they want to see it passed,” O’Neil said.
The bill would allow “a firearm that is secured in a locked container approved by the district or in a locked motor vehicle the entire time that it is on school grounds or property, except while in use for a school-sanctioned instructional activity, is not considered to have been brought to school or possessed at school.”
While it may be rare these days, O’Neil said, schools once offered instructional activities involving shooting sports.
The bill’s preface states that hunting and shooting sports are “an integral component” of Montana history, and “to honor that history and culture, public schools in Montana shall support hunting and shooting sports.”
The bill also clarifies, for student discipline purposes, what a firearm is and is not, in light of recent stories elsewhere in the country involving students being disciplined for behavior only remotely related to firearms.
The bill states that the definition of a firearm does not include a picture of a firearm, a fractional replica of a firearm, a person imitating the sound of a firearm or a person forming a hand into the shape of a firearm.
“I don’t want students suspended because they draw a picture of a gun or if they point their finger and go ‘bang,’” O’Neil said.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.