When it comes to fighting for stricter gun control laws in the United States, Nancy de Pastino offers some interesting statistics. The National Rifle Association often boasts it has more than 4 million members nationwide. That may be, de Pastino says, but there are also some 80 million mothers in this country, all of whom can sympathize with the horrors that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary two months ago.
"Yeah, the NRA's powerful, but how powerful are moms?" asks de Pastino, head of the recently formed Montana chapter of grassroots nonprofit Moms Demand Action. "It's a good number to keep in mind when I'm feeling little."
And de Pastino does feel little. Shannon Watts, a mother from Indiana, founded Moms Demand Action, formerly known as One Million Moms for Gun Control, in the wake of Sandy Hook and has since established nearly 80 separate chapters across the country. De Pastino's chapter, meanwhile, boasts fewer than 100 members so far. Montana is in many ways a "Wild West state still," de Pastino says, and while the response has been overwhelmingly positive, she has found speaking up for gun control legislation in the state "intimidating."
It's a point Missoula Democratic Sen. Sue Malek understands all too well. Malek, who, as a mother, intends to join de Pastino's cause, says gun control legislation is a particularly sensitive topic in Montana. When Malek speaks up as a lawmaker, she says she anticipates hundreds of emails, "and some of them will be threatening."
"The pro-gun bills and rhetoric in the Montana Legislature give our state a radical reputation," Malek says. "Business owners who want a safe and healthy environment for themselves, their families and employees certainly are not encouraged to move to Montana when we represent ourselves as radicals who want guns in every venue, refuse to enforce and follow laws, and want to withdraw from the nation."
Just last week, Montana's House Judiciary Committee passed a number of measures that would actually lighten gun restrictions in the state—including a measure to allow guns in cars parked in public school parking lots.
Moms Demand Action has joined a throng of advocacy groups in recent weeks demanding action from state and federal governments in cracking down on gun violence. In fact, the organization officially declared the week of Feb. 18 "Moms Demand Action Week." The actions, as set down by Watts, are at once controversial and to the point: ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines; require universal background checks; report large-quantity sales of ammunition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and work to limit the scope of state concealed-weapons laws.
De Pastino recognizes those goals won't be accomplished until group chapters like hers build a following. So, for her chapter's first big undertaking, de Pastino found inspiration in a CNN broadcast she saw while on a treadmill at the YMCA. The story was about a gun buyback program in Los Angeles, where individuals could get grocery credit for turning in unwanted firearms, no questions asked. The guns were then destroyed.
"If somebody takes offense to that kind of transaction, I'd be surprised," de Pastino says. "It's pretty non-threatening."
Similar programs have proven wildly successful across the country in recent weeks. The Grace Cathedral International Church in Nassau County, N.Y., collected 330 firearms last weekend, including 17 assault rifles. Late last month, a two-day buyback event in Mercer County, N.J., took in 2,604 firearms, 700 of which were either illegally bought or illegally modified, according to The New York Times. And in Seattle last month, gun owners exchanged 715 guns. NBC News later reported that Seattle police confiscated a nonfunctional missile launcher a man had purchased from another individual in the buyback line for $100.
De Pastino doesn't expect to see hundreds of guns exchanged in Missoula. But her group has teamed up with the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center to host a local gun buyback program. The event is still in the works, but de Pastino's initial efforts to get the city involved have already hit a snag: According to a state law passed in 2009, Montana law enforcement officials cannot legally destroy any firearms they collect.
What the Missoula Police Department can do is offer a police presence for public safety, says Police Chief Mark Muir. Muir points to unforeseen friction at Seattle's buyback as evidence that such a presence could be necessary.
"There was a good response to [the Seattle] gun buyback, but what it also did was bring all sorts of gun rights advocates out where they were trying to one-up the buyback," Muir says. "It was turning into a gun flea market."
Muir isn't sure anyone will turn up for a buyback here, but "nobody knows 'til they try."
De Pastino says she has good reason to give it her all. Montana ranks third in gun ownership per capita nationwide. The state also leads the nation in suicide rates, and nearly two-thirds of those suicides involve firearms. De Pastino recently reached out to Sen. Jon Tester's office to highlight her chapter's concern over the exclusion of gun control proposals in a host of bills co-sponsored by Tester this month to improve mental health treatment and decrease suicide rates.
Tester told the Indy this week he feels that despite the strong connection between the issues, mental health legislation and gun control legislation "should remain separate."
This week, de Pastino traveled to Helena to distribute a strongly worded letter to every state lawmaker. The letter chastised the legislature for moving in "exactly the wrong direction on guns." True to her word, she's demanding action.