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Thousands of high schoolers protested after Parkland. This one says little changed


Well, the massacre in Uvalde came just over four years after the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Back then, thousands of students across the country walked out of classes to demand action on guns and public safety. We caught up with one of the protesters who organized and brought a gun reform law to state lawmakers. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Walkouts and demonstrations in 2018 after Parkland included this one in Montana.


SAWYER GARRITY: (Singing) We're tired of hearing that we're too young to ever make a change.

RAGAR: At the time, Clara McRae, a student at Capital High School in Helena, said kids just wanted to be heard.

CLARA MCRAE: I think a lot of the time the conversation just occurs between, like, adults and, like, opposing political parties. And you never really get the opinion of, like, the kids, and we don't know what we believe yet. So I think it's a lot easier for us to kind of come together and have respectful dialogue without getting angry.

RAGAR: McRae also helped form Helena Youth Against Gun Violence. They went to state lawmakers with what they thought was a pretty mild request - make it a crime for an adult to leave a firearm accessible to a child. Democratic State Representative Moffie Funk carried their bill.


MOFFIE FUNK: We know that Montanans are fabulously responsible and ethical gun owners. This just helps them think twice about gun storage.

RAGAR: The bill also would have required gun safety education to be taught in schools. Here's Clara McRae testifying for it in 2019.


MCRAE: Some will argue that this is unnecessary, saying that the safety curriculum already exists and is currently implemented. However, as a student finishing up my 12th year in the Helena School District, I can attest that this is absolutely false.

RAGAR: Data from the RAND Corporation show 64% of Montana homes have guns in them, the highest rate in the U.S. Fred Thomas was Montana's Republican Senate majority leader at the time.


FRED THOMAS: That's the last thing we're going to do - is go into people's homes and tell them how to take care of their own defense weapons.

RAGAR: The bill died. Now, three years later, after the shooting in Uvalde, McRae says it's up for debate whether pushing for that bill made a difference.

MCRAE: The ultimate message that we were trying to convey was that we were terrified to go to school and that we didn't feel safe there and that we wanted the people who we - who present to be in charge to do something about it. And they ultimately did not.

RAGAR: Last year Montana Republicans pushed to remove restrictions on firearms. They passed a bill expanding concealed carry of guns without a permit to almost anywhere in the state, including banks and bars. They also loosened rules for firearms on college campuses. That's currently tied up in court. Clara McRae is now 21 and studying political science and history at the University of Montana. She said hearing the news from Texas was heartbreaking.

MCRAE: It shows above all that the kids are not all right. And whether it be because of gun violence or poor mental health or whatever reason, children are clearly feeling as though they're not being protected and as though they're not safe at school.

RAGAR: She says she's learned that fear is the ruling emotion in America right now and that, beyond guns, America has a problem with systemic violence.

MCRAE: Violence and fear tends to breed more violence and fear. I don't know if there's any way to, like, regulate guns in this country at this point. I think that while the interest groups have made that pretty much impossible to do, it's just simply too polarized.

RAGAR: Four years ago, Clara McRae walked out of her high school classes after 17 people were killed at a high school in Florida. Now she says she isn't keeping up with the news about the Uvalde shooting in order to protect her mental health. For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JACOBY'S "TOMORROW'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.