Billings Gazette, March 14, on banning the CDC from studying gun violence:
What strategies are most effective at preventing suicides?
How can public policy reduce accidental firearms injuries?
What public health measures can lessen the injuries and deaths caused by use of firearms in domestic disturbances?
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These and other questions must be answered by scientific research. Among 30,000 gun deaths per year in the United States, more than half are suicides. Nowhere are the answers to gun violence more important than in Montana where the suicide rate is the worst in the nation, where the majority of suicides involve firearms, as do most partner-family member homicides, and the rate of unintentional firearms injuries to children exceeds the national average.
We aren't getting rid of guns. Americans need to learn how to live with them — without harming themselves or other innocents.
But the United States' foremost funder of public health research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is prohibited by law from spending even one dollar to study gun violence. The prohibition, known as the Dickey Amendment, was tacked onto a must-pass House budget bill in 1996. A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer described a 29-word amendment added on Page 245 of a 750-page bill.
Its namesake, former U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, changed his mind about that amendment. In 2012, he co-authored a Washington Post column that said: "Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one, but these fears are senseless. We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question, 'When is the best time to plant a tree?' The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second best time is now."
Dickey died in 2017, but the counterproductive amendment that bears his name continues to leave a gaping hole in the public policy debate. Americans mourn the victims and argue about solutions without the benefit of research into best practices for Americans.
Steps certainly can and should be taken to bring common sense to America's gun laws. Some of America's largest retailers, notably Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods recently announced they will no longer sell long guns to people under age 21. Dick's also announced that it will stop selling assault-style rifles, a step that Wal-Mart had already taken.
States can and should lead the way in making policy changes that improve public safety. Florida's legislature last week started that process after hearing the pleas of students and other citizens affected by the massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Sound science is needed to inform state and federal policymaking. Those policies must be based on hard data. Best practices in public health aren't created out of thin air; they are based in scientific evidence.
The U.S. Congress has another budget deadline looming next week — the fourth since the federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1 without a budget. The Dickey Amendment was stuck on an omnibus budget bill 22 years ago. It has stymied the research and knowledge-sharing America needs to protect the innocent and the public health. It's way past time to axe the ban on funding gun violence research. Congress should eliminate the Dickey Amendment the same way it was created: by deleting 29 words from federal law in next week's budget. Montana's delegation, Jon Tester, Steve Daines and Greg Gianforte, should support sound science and vote to allow the CDC to resume research on gun violence as it studies other causes of death, injury and illness.
Missoulian, March 11, on Montana journalists pushing for transparency:
These are dark days for journalism in America. Despite the fact that more information is more accessible than ever before, it has only become more difficult for the average American to sift through the sands of misinformation and separate fact from fiction.
In Montana, journalists must continually press public officials for names, numbers and other materials — and keep up the pressure despite seemingly endless roadblocks and other tactics designed to stall the release of public information.
But spring is on the way. March 11-17 marks the annual return of Sunshine Week, when the Missoulian joins other news organizations across the nation to celebrate freedom of information — and renew our commitment to upholding the people's right to know. Organized by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the The Gridiron Club and Foundation, Sunshine Week brings an opportunity to reflect on recent successful efforts to access public information — and shine a light on those dark corners still shrouded in secrecy.
Montana has some of the nation's strongest open records laws, thanks to a state Constitution that explicitly states, "No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure."
Reporters regularly exercise this constitutional right on behalf of the general public when requesting documents from government employees. If those officials refuse to release important public information, the next step is to file a formal request citing the Freedom of Information Act.
More often than not, these government officials aren't driven by a malevolent desire to hide important information. Rather, they are merely trying to minimize a mistake, or worried that they might violate someone's privacy, or are making a personal judgment that certain information just isn't important enough to warrant public scrutiny.
Missoulians saw a recent example of this attitude during the prioritization process undertaken by the University of Montana last year. Initially, the reports generated as part of that process, and used by task force members, were not made available to the general public.
In fact, the university's legal counsel, Lucy France, told the task force that members of the public who wanted to review the documents could access them by filing public information requests. She explained to the Missoulian that she had assured the task force "that there was no legal requirement to make information instantaneously available."
Fortunately, UM leadership on both the task force and in Main Hall followed through with their stated commitment to transparency, and made the prioritization information publicly accessible — and readily available. The university owes Montana taxpayers no less as a publicly funded institution. Journalists or not, individuals should not have to file formal information requests for documents that are already accessible to the campus community.
Unfortunately, public agencies too often require a formal request before they will release basic public information, which can lead to significant delays.
For example, a Freedom of Information Act request eventually forced the release of key details in the death of a 53-year-old man from Illinois who died after a fall in Yellowstone National Park last summer. After Yellowstone officials maintained that their investigation was private even months later, last month a TV news station in Billings shared the results of their request, which included the fact that Jeff Murphy had been searching for treasure in the time leading up to his death. With this key detail, Montanans can now be on the lookout for others who may be going after the famous "Fenn Treasure" said to have been hidden somewhere in the Rocky Mountains by art dealer and author Forrest Fenn.
Freedom of Information Act requests also help Montanans keep a closer eye on federal officials. In early December, requests filed by the Associated Press and other news organizations revealed that Interior Secretary had spent more than $53,000 in taxpayer money on helicopter trips under dubious circumstances. Further, the Department of the Interior tried to pay for one of Zinke's helicopter tours by using wildfire preparedness funds. After this came to light, the department admitted it had charged the wrong account by "mistake."
Last fall, Montanans learned that state Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale had told health insurance companies that they could raise rates if circumstances changed, then publicly chastised them when they did. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Bozeman Chronicle returned letters written by Rosendale last August assuring them that his office would work with them to "ensure rates are modified to address new circumstances" stemming from changes to the Affordable Care Act. In an October announcement, Rosedale noted the rate increases and added that "Montana families cannot continue to bail out companies that make poor business decisions."
In January, a Freedom of Information Act request resulted in the release of a letter from former chairman of the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board, Tom Towe, in which he implored Gov. Steve Bullock to sign legislation that would allow the board to hire its own executive director. Bullock had vetoed the bill and then dismissed Towe from the board in August.
The Bullock administration is still refusing to provide important information about state settlements to employees. While the latest data from legislative auditors, provided in a memo to Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, suggests that the total amount of these settlements has increased dramatically in recent years, reaching $875,226 in the 2017 budget year and topping $336,000 in 2018 already, even auditors don't have a full measure of the number or amount of every settlement agreed to in recent years.
Journalists will continue shining a light on this issue and others, this week and every week. Our fellow Montanans are more than welcome to join us as we continue the fight for public access and greater transparency. Help us let the sunshine in.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, March 9, on a proposed amendment to the Montana Constitution:
A conservative activist lawyer in Helena has proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would explicitly bar non-U.S. citizens from voting in Montana elections. Chris Gallus says the amendment is intended to preserve the integrity of elections, and that the amendment will prevent policies in some towns in other states that allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. But Montana's constitution already defines eligible voters as U.S. citizens who have lived in the state at least 30 days.
An immigrants-rights attorney who opposes the measure says the proposal is just an attempt to stir up anti-immigration anger in advance of this fall's election. It may be that, but it also looks like another thinly veiled attempt to suppress voter participation.
There is zero evidence of any form of voter fraud — including voting by non-citizens — in our election process. But citing nothing of substance, some politicians have been pushing for a variety of voter ID laws. Mandating photo IDs to vote unfairly hits low-income and minority populations.
This immigrant voting ban amendment looks like another attempt to require more documentation from people before they can vote. But that's precisely the opposite direction we should be moving in. Democracy works best when the maximum number of citizens participate. We should be looking for ways to make it easier for all eligible voters to cast their ballots.
The proposed amendment will require its backers to get more than 50,000 signatures on a petition before it can be placed on the ballot. Signature gatherers will be asking registered voters to sign the petition saying that we need to prevent non-citizens from voting. But before signing, voters should ask themselves if they want to participate in what is a demonstrably needless effort to fiddle with our constitution for purely political reasons.
County clerks and recorders have said loudly and repeatedly that our elections are conducted with the utmost integrity and that requiring additional layers of documentation to vote is not needed.
Our state constitution already requires eligible voters to be U.S. citizens. We don't need to amend the constitution to reiterate what it already says.