As student editors explained it to me, the state of Montana — until 2021 — had generally escaped the most contentious of gun debates.
Montana’s frontier background, they explained, meant that most citizens were more comfortable and familiar with firearms than mainstream Americans.
Still, there were places where guns weren’t culturally accepted and were therefore outlawed — the University of Montana campus being one of them.
That’s why UM student journalists were surprised to learn about state legislators’ efforts to legalize guns on campus, and galvanized to explore the issue.
The result is “In the Crosshairs,” a semester-long look at Montana’s gun culture and efforts to normalize firearms in educational spaces.
“This is one of the most unrestricted gun bills in the nation,” said Kaimin editor Addie Slanger.
Student journalists in the Poynter College Media Project were selected through an application process in the spring of 2021 that asked them to propose an investigation that centered on a problem or issue facing their campus. Dozens of student media outlets applied, and seven were selected for the program, which provided custom project planning, ongoing support from Poynter personnel and a slate of high-profile speakers. They included four-time Pulitzer winner David Barstow, Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong and Sara Ganim, who broke the Jerry Sandusky story as a young reporter.
The project was supported by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
In the spring of 2021, the Montana state legislature proposed House Bill 102, legislation that would allow permitless open and concealed carry on college campuses. The bill passed, but was put on hold by a judge in May when Montana’s collegiate board of regents challenged the law. They contend that the state legislature can’t override their governance, and the regents don’t want guns on campus.
“We decided that we would produce a semester-long look at the politics and the culture behind the state that fostered House Bill 102, and the implications of the bill, as it evolves through court,” Slanger said in a Dec. 6 webinar. “We want it to culminate with a little bit of a look ahead, hoping that maybe this could be something that people could use as this bill progresses through court and as it eventually either is upheld or is not upheld.”
Slanger said the entire Kaimin staff was involved in this project in some capacity — from the reporters on the ground finding stories and designers creating graphics, to the copy team editing for style and photographers capturing images. Copy chief/digital editor Andrea Halland created the special website tab and design editor MaKayla O’Neil designed the final print edition, with help from designer Mariah Karis.
That special section was distributed statewide.
“One of our main challenges (was) staying on top of the project and the stories coming in,” Slanger said. “We combated that by having a really strict schedule and just sticking to it.”
By far the biggest challenge to the team was the changing nature of House Bill 102, which at any moment could have been ruled on by the courts.
“We kind of had to make the last-minute call of like, do we want to go forward with this project, even though it could change at the drop of a hat?” Slanger said.
The timing turned out to be perfect.
“Just last week, as we were distributing our final edition, the district court permanently ruled that the sections of the bill pertaining to campus were not legal,” Slanger said.
She had some advice for other student journalists attempting an investigative project.
“Definitely select reporters who are passionate about the subjects on which they’re reporting,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, one comment from a reader stuck out to her.
“This was a particularly special email that I got … a 91-year-old law school alumni from Missoula, who was a veteran, was congratulating us on our special edition — the coverage and the objectivity — which I take great pride in … this is a really hot-button issue in Montana.”