It’s almost never a positive to be listed with Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina, but that’s precisely where Montana finds itself on a list of the states with the most gun violence. Despite a relatively low rate of crime in Montana, the state clocks in at #5 in gun deaths, according to a Centers for Disease Control study reported by USA Today.
According to the study, Montana had 16.8 firearm deaths per 100,000 residents, despite being ranked 39th in the nation in violent crime. At least part of the reason why Montana ranks so high is the lack of reasonable restrictions on gun ownership and use, brought to us by reactionary organizations like the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the NRA.
Let’s look at a practical change we could make to ensure fewer gun deaths: fixing the gaps in background checks. A recent piece by Representative Ellie Boldman Hill notes that Montana isn’t sending in records of those with serious mental illnesses to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System:
Our state already sends in records for felons and spousal abusers, but we don’t send in our prohibiting mental health records. In fact, alarmingly, our state has submitted a total of 3 records to NICS since its inception. That means we’re allowing an untold number of dangerous people slip through the crack—even though they’re not legally allowed to possess guns in the first place.
When Representative Hill initially offered her opinion in the Missoulian, she was met with this response from Montana’s leading gun nut, the MSSA’s one-man show, Gary Marbut, in which he asserted that “all people with mental health issues are prone to violence is a badly prejudiced and factually incorrect way to view these people, similar to attributing violent tendencies to people only because of skin color. Mental health professionals themselves say that their art is not sufficiently matured to allow prediction of violence by individuals.”
While I’m in no position to question the mental health professionals consulted by Gary Marbut, the American Psychological Assocation argues that background checks for those with serious mental illnesses who pose a threat to themselves or others work:
The use of a gun greatly increases the odds that violence will lead to a fatality: This problem calls for urgent action. Firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes, and individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence. The licensing of handgun purchasers, background check requirements for all gun sales, and close oversight of retail gun sellers can reduce the diversion of guns to criminals.
Hill’s sensible call for regulation—and the tiresome, predictable response from Gary Marbut—illustrate just why Montana will continue to lead the nation in gun violence: as long as members of the Legislature can be cowed by the caterwauling of gun nuts, going so far as letting those nuts write, lobby for, and “explain” bills to the body, we’ll continue to see the tragedy of senseless deaths here in Montana.
I’ve written at length before about the gundamentalists who raise momey in the state by stoking fears of state control of firearms, who rail against every sensible check on gun use, and who call for guns in our schools, bars, and banks—gundamentalists who have hijacked the Second Amendment and turned it into an absolutist statement that ignores the dangers of modern weapons and the threat those weapons pose, especially to young people.
While Marbut and his band of legislators are calling for more guns in more hands while working to underfund mental health services, demonizing law enforcement, and trying to turn our schools into shooting ranges, they bear some responsibility for the tragedies that follow.
Wailing about a tyrannical government and the loss of the right to bring any gun into any space for any reason may play well with the small percentage of Montanans who are gun absolutists, but it’s time for the rest of us to hold those absolutists responsible and give them their share of the blame for the violence they help encourage.