The tense debate over a measure to expand the right to carry a concealed gun in Montana spilled onto the House floor Wednesday afternoon, at one point descending into a disagreement over decorum and halting the proceedings to clarify the appropriateness of a question posed by a lawmaker.

House Bill 102, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, aims to make several alterations to state firearms laws, including implementing a prohibition on the Montana University System and Montana Board of Regents’ authority to regulate the carrying of guns on campuses. The bill had already generated considerable discussion in the House Judiciary Committee over the past week, and Berglee sought once more to explain his goal to colleagues.

“The purpose of the bill is very clear,” Berglee said. “It’s to enhance the safety of people by expanding their legal ability to provide for their own defense by reducing or eliminating government-mandated places where only criminals are armed and where citizens are prevented from exercising their fundamental right to defend themselves and others.”

The debate proceeded for roughly half an hour, with lawmakers alternatingly sharing their views of the bill’s merits in enhancing Montanans’ security and its threat to the safety of those same citizens. Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, spoke in favor of the bill from his experience as a former police officer, noting that the areas where Berglee proposes to expand the carrying of firearms are typically places “where only criminals carry guns.”

“This bill to me is not about those times when police officers are there,” Garner said. “It’s about when they’re not. We should be clear: this is about empowering people, law-abiding citizens, to defend themselves.”

On the other side of the HB 102 divide, Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, reiterated a point made during testimony in the House Judiciary Committee: that expanding access to guns on campuses raises concerns not only about violence toward others, but about the increased potential for suicides.

“I’m well aware of what a gunshot does to somebody. That’s the reason I’m bringing this bill.”

Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet

“I share the sponsor’s concerns with providing a safe environment for our sons and daughters attending Montana’s great universities,” Stafman said via remote video. “But increasing guns on our campuses will only cause more death, not less. More suffering for Montana families, not less. More fear for faculty, staff and law enforcement, not less.”

The most contentious moment of the debate came when Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, asked through his face mask whether Berglee had ever suffered a gunshot wound. Berglee did not answer, and as Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, serving as House chair for the day, attempted to cut Keane off, Keane put the question to the rest of the House. 

“No one raised their hand, Mr. Chairman,” Keane said. “I guess I’m the poster child.”

As Keane attempted to share a story, Skees interrupted, ruling that Keane’s testimony did not pertain to the bill. During the subsequent back-and-forth, Minority Leader Kim Abbott called on Skees to take his ruling to the House Rules Committee. When the proceedings resumed, Skees’ ruling stood, and he explained to Keane that his question had been a breach of decorum. Keane concluded his testimony opposing HB 102 by stating that he will watch for an opportunity to share his personal story during hearings on later firearms bills.

Berglee wrapped up the discussion by invoking the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Had a resident assistant who was shot early that day been armed, he said, dozens of additional deaths could have been averted. Berglee did not directly revisit Keane’s question during his closing statement, but he did address the direction in which the debate had gone, citing his past experience in the armed services as a firearms instructor.

“I’m well aware of what a gunshot does to somebody,” Berglee said. “That’s the reason I’m bringing this bill.”

The House approved its second reading of HB 102 by a vote of 67 to 33. The bill will have to pass a third reading, scheduled for Jan. 14, before it can be transmitted to the Senate.

UPDATE: HB 102 passed the House Jan. 14 by a vote of 66 to 31 and will now move to the Senate for further deliberation.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.