Emotionally charged student walkouts demand change, bring counterprotests
Nationwide, students walked out of school Wednesday to demand stricter gun control. Missoula's walkouts brought opinions on all sides of the debate.
The sound of chants, cheers and car horns filled sidewalks in downtown Missoula Wednesday.
"These are kids we're going to school with," one sophomore told us. "This is a public school. We shouldn't have to be worried about gun violence at school."
Emotions ran high. We spoke to two sisters standing together to demand change to gun laws. They want to prevent more kids from living the nightmare of a school shooting.
"There should be stricter control on the guns that are able to be purchased," Hannah, a Hellgate High School senior said. "There should not be semi-automatic weapons available to purchase anywhere to anybody."
A small group of students organized a counterprotest at the last minute. They chanted things like "guns for us" and spoke of Second Amendment rights.
"We believe in the Second Amendment, and these people do not," a counterprotester said. "We are upholding our rights to bear arms, while they want to take them. We are not going to stand for it."
At Hellgate High, a fire alarm pulled at the time of the walkout meant every student left the building, making the initial walkout look more dramatic.
Hellgate Principal Judson Miller says they have a suspect, but it is still under investigation. He says they will pursue charges.
Miller sent an email to staff members later in the afternoon. It said, "Pulling the fire alarm a week after a school shooting occurred in the exact same fashion was the irresponsible route. Especially since so much effort and time went into setting a safe, productive path forward for them to use the walkout productively. I look at all of these events as teaching opportunities. If there is a way to weave this into a conversation with your classes as a teachable moment in the next day or so, I would really appreciate it."
Some students NBC Montana talked to said they're scared every day. Some say they're still rattled over a reported threat across town at Big Sky High this week.
"There should be action taken against threats like that," one student told us. "Right after a shooting I feel like there will be copycat shootings, and that really scares me."
Counterprotesters say more guns are the answer to the school shootings.
"One of the solutions I believe in that a New Mexico school has done is arm all of their teachers with .45 pistols."
While not everyone at the protest agreed on the Second Amendment, all of the students used their First Amendment rights to send messages to their community.
The group stayed on the bridge for about 30 minutes before walking to Sen. Steve Daines' downtown Missoula office and then to the Missoula County Courthouse. There was a small organized protest in front of the courthouse before they walked to Caras Park and then back to school.
Miller says, while the walkout wasn't sanctioned by the school, he supports civil engagement. Anyone who didn't show up for class was marked absent, but they don't face disciplinary action.
We asked Montana's Congressional delegation for reactions to the student walkouts demanding change in gun laws. Sen. Jon Tester says he supports banning bump stocks and legislation that closes the background check loophole.
"It is good to see young folks standing up for what they believe in," Tester said. "I welcome all Montanans’ feedback. Our schools need to be safe places for our kids, not tragic halls of violence"
Rep. Greg Gianforte said, "We must focus on enforcing existing laws to reduce violence. As well, officials at all levels of government must work together to ensure troubled individuals receive the care they need before their behavior can escalate into violence. The community's reaction to a threat at Darby High School in Ravalli County is an example of how to best address these threats early -- students, parents, teachers, school officials and law enforcement quickly identifying and handling threats before they can grow."
Sen. Steve Daines issued this statement: "We must strictly enforce current laws forbidding potentially dangerous persons from possessing a firearm, but I believe we can do so while also protecting the constitutional rights of the thousands of Montanans who safely and lawfully possess or use a firearm. History shows us more gun laws do not make our society safer. What will make our families safer is addressing the challenges we face in mental health services and aggressively taking action when individuals make threats to kill and harm others."
The walkouts are part of a nationwide call for action started by the Women's March group. You can go to their website to find walkouts in your area. The group's website says the walkouts are meant to "protest Congress' inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods. We need action."