Elementary students have to rely on a tarp, not the law.

Second Amendment

You ever wonder what the Second Amendment looks like?

It’s a concept more than an object; many Montana politicians think the Second Amendment looks like something with polished steel or that it comes in a camouflaged matte finish.

But the clearest representation of the Second Amendment to me isn’t any particular firearm, it’s a Billings elementary school that has put up a plastic black tarp – the kind that you’d buy at a hardware store; the kind that seems to flap in the breeze, no matter how well you try to hold it down.

That was about the only option left for Billings Public Schools to try to alleviate Broadwater Elementary parents’ fears about a man walking through the neighborhood with a gun.

Those words are hard to write.

Man, gun, school – those are the elements that have become the prelude to a tragedy that is completed by the coda, “thoughts and prayers.”

Yet, in all the talk of making schools safe or hardening them, the only available option for the school was a flimsy tarp that couldn’t stop a bullet, but could at least hide the reality long enough for kids to be dropped off at the backdoor of the school. Or so that the kids could play in the back of the building, away from playground equipment. At least there, they couldn’t be upset by the man with the gun right across the street.

According to records from the Billings Police Department, officers had been dispatched more than 30 times to Gabriel Cowan Metcalf’s house, right across from Broadwater Elementary, on reports of a man with a gun. Billings Police Lt. Matt Lennick said that as many of those calls-for-service happened, emergency dispatchers were often inundated with other callers – parents, students and concerned citizens — all worried about Metcalf, a man with a gun, right across the street from one of the largest elementary schools in Montana’s largest city.

So, 30 calls is conservative.

This is a situation that has spanned more than two school years. I can only imagine that the tension and fear normally induced when schools “go into lockdown” was exacerbated by the presence of Metcalf, never knowing if he had crossed that line from gun-totin’ to gun-usin’.

Broadwater Elementary School and playgrounds as seen from 430 Broadwater Avenue in Billings, the home of Gabriel Cowan Metcalf (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

Our state lawmakers, egged on by their federal counterparts in the Freedom Caucus, have eliminated nearly any gun law that would prohibit this sort of menacing behavior, because protecting someone’s right to paranoia exceeds the rights of hundreds of students and their parents, the teachers and even police officers’ safety.

Metcalf told authorities that his reason for carrying an open gun was because of an ongoing dispute with his neighbor – even though the neighbor has since moved. And that answer is helpful because it explains why Metcalf also chased down some cars with gun in hand. Metcalf explained that he thought he often saw his former neighbor, possibly coming back for revenge. That may also explain the bear spray Metcalf was carrying and camouflage he was wearing, according to court documents.

Even though Metcalf had never expressed any hostility toward the school, or the people who seemed alarmed, you can excuse folks for being concerned.

I cannot imagine how police officers felt, metaphorically handcuffed, unable to do much about Metcalf who had a vendetta, a shotgun, right across the street from more than 400 students. His interactions with the Billings Police Department stretch back a decade, with a 2013 incident that got him flagged as a potential danger to officers when Metcalf was carrying a loaded .22 rifle.

Meanwhile, school officials were left with a tarp.

Federal officials were able to do slightly better, arresting Metcalf because he was violating federal law by having a weapon within 1,000 feet of a school – a measure that many Congressional Republicans have advocated to repeal.

Just last year, U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, a Republican, whose largest city in his district is Billings, was a co-sponsor on House Resolution 7415, a measure that would repeal all “gun-free” zones around schools.

When contacted three times after Metcalf was arrested, Rosendale’s office refused to comment on how this legislation would work had it passed, and how it could have possibly helped. Figures, seeing as how Rosendale has also been accused of colluding with the National Rifle Association.

Metcalf, as I write this, is still being held in federal custody after Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan determined:

“Defendant believes possession of the firearm and patrolling the area around his property within the school zone is necessary to protect he and his mother from a perceived threat posed by a former neighbor… and he has chased automobiles he believes may be associated with his former neighbor. He has previously been advised that he is prohibited from possessing a firearm within the school zone, but he has stated his belief that the law is unconstitutional and he asserted his right to do so…

“…The court finds it is unlikely that he would abide any condition prohibiting him from possessing a firearm while on pretrial release. Therefore, there are no conditions or combination of conditions which can be imposed to reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community if released.”

The “return” of the search warrant to the federal court – which inventories what was confiscated — listed  a 20-gauge break-action shotgun and six rounds of 20-gauge ammo.

It’s telling that gun enthusiasts like Rosendale or even state Attorney General and fellow Republican Austin Knudsen, who admits that he has “a bit of a problem with guns,” take to cable television and talk radio to profess their love of guns, but remain silent in cases like this.

We have been given a gift – a warning sign and precursor to something far more tragic. People can sense what could have happened if the circumstances were just slightly different.

It’s well past time that we advocate for common-sense measures and responsible gun control, instead of contorting history to support the idea that our founding fathers would have accepted the idea of lockdowns, school shootings, and Metcalf, who seemed convinced his former neighbor was planning revenge via gasoline and a leaf blower (true story … read the court documents), as the necessary and inevitable byproduct of the freedom to own guns.

I am not sure how parents are supposed to feel when their kids drill for active shooter threats, routinely go into lockdown, and are warned that even joking about a weapon can get you expelled, only to have a neighbor patrolling the neighborhood with a shotgun face nearly no consequences for months.

“Sorry, the best any of us could do was a tarp” seems like a pathetic and insulting excuse — even though school officials literally had tried everything, including asking Metcalf to not patrol the neighborhood during school hours.

I have three children, all in public schools. I used to be worried about someone walking into school with a loaded gun before being halted. Now, I have been confronted with an even scarier reality: A man gets to walk around school with a gun.

And nothing happens.

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