Three Missoulians last week submitted to the Montana Supreme Court their own vignettes for consideration in a case about regulation of firearms and, more broadly, the conflict of power between state and local government.
Those whose names appeared in an amicus brief filed in the high court on Tuesday include a University of Montana professor with deep regret for privately selling a handgun later used in a homicide, and Missoula's former suicide prevention coordinator.
The case stems from an ordinance passed by the Missoula City Council in 2016 that would make background checks mandatory for the transfer or sale of any firearm, including those sold at gun shows. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican candidate for governor in 2020, overturned the ordinance in a 2017 opinion, but lost when Missoula officials challenged his ruling in District Court.
In November, Fox appealed a District Court judge’s decision in the Missoula City Council's favor.
Fox argues local governments do not have the capacity to infringe on gun rights provided in the U.S. and Montana Constitutions, and that the Missoula judge dismissed the case before Fox's team was able to present their case in whole. Attorneys for the City of Missoula contend the measure falls within their authority to keep residents safe, and firearms away from violent offenders.
Among those included in the brief filed July 9 is Mark Grimes, a biology professor at UM and member of several shooting clubs and associations.
More than a decade ago, Grimes met a private buyer who was only interested in purchasing one of Grimes’ firearms if Grimes sold it to him directly, according to Grimes. A few years later, Missoula police contacted Grimes about the gun: It had been used in a homicide in Denver, Colorado.
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“With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Dr. Grimes now realizes that his buyer may have been so eager to buy the gun through a private sale precisely because he could avoid a background check that way,” attorneys wrote.
John Moffatt, once the vice principal at Fergus High School in Lewistown, has also signed on to the filing. In 1986, a 14-year-old Fergus High student “went on a shooting spree,” killing one of his teachers before shooting Moffatt at point-blank range. Moffatt survived the shooting with the treatment of a former Army medic who was visiting the school to see their child.
Heidi Kendall, the third to sign on to the amicus brief, was the suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula City-County Health Department and a proponent of the ordinance when it passed.
The three residents who filed their amicus brief on Tuesday were also heard in the district court case before Judge Robert “Dusty” Deschamps. There were four then; Tom Platt, an avid outdoorsman who supported the council’s measure, died in late 2018 of a rare and fatal cancer, according to his obituary.
"My charge in the charter is the health and safety and welfare of the people that live here," said Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, one of the primary proponents of the ordinance. "And these folks in the amicus brief, these are folks that live here."
While individuals from the Missoula area join the city in the case, the National Rifle Association filed its brief in support of Fox's case in May. Both groups, as well as the Montana Shooting Sports Association, based in Missoula, made similar submissions to the district court case.
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office on Friday declined to comment on ongoing litigation.