Montana Gubernatorial Debate photos, part 1

Gubernatorial candidates Greg Gianforte, left, and Steve Bullock shake hands after the Montana gubernatorial debate Monday night in Billings.

Despite a contentious election, Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte do agree on at least one matter: a belief that Missoula’s new background check ordinance for gun purchases isn't in line with existing law.

During a meeting with the Missoulian’s editorial board Thursday, Gianforte said he supports the Second Amendment, and thinks the ordinance is unconstitutional and against Montana law.

“Our Second Amendment is really clear. It says the right to bear arms shall not be infringed,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would argue that the ordinance that was passed is a lessening of restrictions, it’s an increasing of restrictions.”

The new ordinance mandates background checks before the private transfer of firearms in Missoula city limits, with some exceptions. Such checks are already required for the purchase of a gun at a store.

Jason Pitt, Montana Democratic Party spokesman, said Governor and former Attorney General Bullock believes the ordinance is against state law.

"Steve believes that while it's critical for local leaders to be able to make their own decisions for their communities, those decisions have to be in line with the laws of our state,” he said.

Gianforte said Thursday it was “not clear” that local municipalities have the authority to pass such a regulation.

“The challenge you have is when you put these sort of rules in place, the only ones they burden are law-abiding citizens,” he said. “Criminals in a gun exchange are not going to do a background check."

Municipalities that pass their own ordinances regarding firearms could create a “patchwork of regulations” that would make it difficult for gun owners to obey the law, Gianforte said, but he also doesn't support a statewide universal background check statute.

“I believe background checks are a step towards a gun registry, which I am opposed to,” he said.

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The evening the ordinance passed at the Missoula City Council on Sept. 26, the speaker of Montana's House of Representatives, Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, wrote on his campaign Facebook page that he would ask Attorney General Tim Fox to issue a legal opinion on whether it conflicts with state law and the Montana Constitution.

John Barnes, director of communications for the Montana Department of Justice, said Friday that Fox’s office has not received a request from Knudsen, who did not return a request for comment.

If issued, a legal opinion from Fox would would only be able to be overruled by a state district court or the Montana Supreme Court.

Knudsen, an attorney who graduated from the law school at the University of Montana, had said previously he felt the ordinance violated the Montana Constitution's right to bear arms and a state law saying that except in certain circumstances, local governments cannot regulate the sale or transfer of firearms.

Last fall when the City Council first took up the ordinance, Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent issued an opinion that said the ordinance fell under such an exception. State law allows local governments the “power to prevent and suppress ... the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens and minors.”

Nugent said Friday that is still the city’s position, and it is prepared to defend the ordinance in a court if necessary, but declined to respond to the politicians questioning its legality.

“I would prefer not to get in the midst of a political fight and that’s what this is. It’s politics season,” he said.

Nugent said the proposal for the ordinance was brought to the city by local members from the nationwide group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and that public comment evenly split during a hearing last October, showing signficant support for the measure. Nugent said he thinks much of the controversy from opponents of the measure extending background checks to private sales is overreaction.

“You can’t prevent the City Council from giving consideration to a matter like this. That's what local governments are in part in place to consider,” he said. "The courts will decide the law and the city is ready to defend the ordinance."

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