Bob McKelvey and Mike Chessin never stepped far beyond letters to local media in their fight for stricter anti gun-violence laws. But in recent months their fledgling organization has begun to gain some political traction with an issue that would appear to be a non-starter in western Montana.
McKelvey and Chessin founded Montanans United to Stop Gun Violence (MU-SGV) years ago to combat what they saw as a serious problem in the state. Late this summer, they finally reached out and approached state Reps. Dick Barrett and Ron Erickson, both of Missoula, about helping the group. In November, Helena Mayor Jim Smith joined MU-SGV's steering committee.
"I think it's a voice that needs to be heard in the debate here in Montana over gun rights," says Smith, who has lobbied against concealed weapons carry for 15 years. "I don't think there's another grassroots organization or a group of ordinary citizens who are committed to the end of gun violence and the maintenance of a civil society."
The group faces a number of tasks for 2010, most immediate of which is agreeing what issue to use as a rallying point. McKelvey says he has growing concerns over the rising number of open carriers in the Bitterroot—an issue highlighted by recent Celebrating Conservatism meetings that feature numerous attendees with firearms. But Barrett says putting open carry practices in the group's crosshairs could galvanize Second Amendment proponents. Barrett believes it's best to rally around an issue of widespread public concern, like the illegal sale and trafficking of firearms in the state. Both issues were discussed at the group's recent 2010 strategy session in Missoula.
Whatever issue MU-SGV decides to attack first, other steps will be required to grow the five-person group. McKelvey plans to spend the holidays working to gain nonprofit status. He says MU-SGV can then reach out to other organizations and hopefully host speakers in the area. The biggest hurdle will be bringing local citizens into the fold.
"This movement is going to continue to work very slowly so long as it's just the few of us being active," McKelvey says.