HELENA - Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican Tim Fox, the two men running to be Montana's next attorney general, have been in a gun fight for months now.
Since July, Fox has pushed gun rights as a cornerstone of his campaign and targeted Bullock for being, in his campaign's estimation, weaker on the issue. The National Rifle Association and the Montana Shooting Sports Association have both endorsed Fox.
But Bullock's position in favor of gun rights is also strong and, Bullock said, tested by personal tragedy.
In 1994, Bullock's 11-year-old nephew Jeremy Bullock was shot and killed on a Butte playground by a classmate facing crisis at home. Bullock said the incident profoundly affected his family and has influenced his views on protecting children - especially those in crisis who might be driven to commit violence. But it has not eroded his belief in the Second Amendment.
Bullock also said that while it's important that Montanans are able to freely buy and sell guns, it's also important that they have places to hunt, and says he's the only candidate who has made hunter's access a centerpiece of his campaign.
It's an unusual issue to define the attorney general race. Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University-Billings, who has studied Montana politics for decades, said he's never seen gun rights emerge as a pivotal issue in the attorney general race.
As a political strategy, it could drum up support in certain circles, Wilson said, and identify Fox early on as "the gun group guy" in a race where neither candidate has much statewide name recognition.
But, Wilson said, it may not be enough to seal a Fox victory.
"I don't know that a single issue like that is enough to put somebody over the top," he said.
Attorney general's role
Wilson said that while guns are always an important political issue in Montana, the bulk of the legal cases the attorney general actually handles probably don't deal with the Second Amendment.
The office typically presents a package of would-be laws every legislative session and lobbies lawmakers to get them passed.
The office primarily deals with defending the state in lawsuits and handling the appeals of criminal prosecutions.
In that arena, said Lynn Solomon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice - which the attorney general oversees - the agency deals often with guns, but those issues typically involve questions like: Was a convicted felon properly accused of committing a crime with a gun?
In terms of the Second Amendment, Solomon said most of those disputes originate with federal law and the U.S. Constitution, and the attorney general plays a bit part. In the last eight years, Solomon said, the Montana attorney general has only twice been involved in national discussions about gun rights.
One of those was a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court on the meaning of the Second Amendment. The case marked only the second time in a century that the nation's high court had interpreted the amendment. Montana's attorney general signed onto an unsolicited "friend of the court" brief.
The second case involved a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. In that case, Solomon said, Montana also signed onto a friend of the court brief.
Fox said he understands the limits of the office, but there's more the attorney general could be doing to bird-dog gun rights. He said he would monitor all gun rights legislation around the country.
"We know from experience that every time a law that infringes upon Americans' constitutional rights, that case may create the law of the land if it reaches the court of appeals for the U.S. Supreme Court," he said.
Fox said he would comment on national gun debates, such as the question over whether guns should be allowed in national parks, and use the Montana Highway Patrol and the Division of Criminal Investigation, both under the Department of Justice, to enforce existing gun laws.
On the details
On specifics, both men agree on many aspects of gun rights: Both oppose efforts to ban .50 caliber ammunition and guns in Montana. Both oppose any kind of licensing for gun ownership or additional paperwork requirements for guns sold at gun shows. Both oppose limits to ownership of semiautomatic guns.
Fox outlined a list of his principles on gun ownership in July. Bullock responded a few days later. The complete list is available on this newspaper's Web site. In that list, Bullock agreed with many of Fox's stance, but said that a few were beyond the powers of the attorney general, like pushing to open college campuses to concealed weapons.
Bullock said he opposes the idea of using the Montana Highway Patrol or Justice Department investigators to enforce gun laws - or any others.
"That's a statewide police force," Bullock said. And Montana has always rejected the idea of a statewide police.
Fox said his strong belief on guns comes from a lifetime of being around guns and hunting since he was 12. He is a hunter and recreational shooter and some of his campaign materials feature him wearing a blaze-orange vest and holding a rifle, or wearing ear protection at a shooting range and shooting a handgun.
Fox said he believes very strongly in the Second Amendment and believes the Department of Justice can, and should, play a role in protecting that right.
Bullock said he, too, believes strongly in gun rights, but unlike Fox, his Second Amendment beliefs have withstood tragedy.
"I know all too well the pain and sorrow that violence leaves in its wake," Bullock wrote Fox this summer in a letter responding to Fox's challenge that Bullock's stance on guns is unknown. "Yet, my belief in the Second Amendment rights of individual firearm ownership remains solid."
Asked if he thought the Fox campaign was intentionally spotlighting guns in the race because they think Bullock might be softer on the issue, given his family history, Bullock said he "certainly hopes not."
"That would be a very, very unfortunate testament to the political process," he said.
Fox said he was unaware of Jeremy Bullock's shooting until Bullock himself raised it in his July letter.
Bullock said hunter access to public lands and public game are an important part of the discussion on gun rights.
"We have a deep hunting heritage," he said. "If you don't have access to public lands to hunt, that heritage is severely limited."
The last time Republicans controlled the state Land Board, on which the attorney general sits, Bullock said, they tried to make it more difficult for citizens to access public lands.
Bullock said he opposes programs that might give large landowners guaranteed hunting tags, a program that he said has already failed in other states.
In some states, like New Mexico and Texas, landowners are guaranteed a certain number of hunting tags to be used on their own land, which they often sell. Bullock said such programs promote the commercialization of public wildlife and can lead to "ranching for wildlife."
Bullock said he opposed expanding Montana's current system of giving outfitters guaranteed hunting licenses. While outfitting provides good jobs for Montana, expanding the program will only exacerbate the problem of hunter access to public wildlife, he said.
Finally, Bullock said the attorney general has an important role to play when new, out-of-state residents try to close public roads that access public lands, often lands used for hunting and recreation.
Fox also said he strongly believes in hunter access. As attorney general, he said he would push for Montana to have a greater decision-making role when federal agencies try to close roads. Sometimes such roads, often used for hunting, are closed with little public involvement.
As for guaranteed landowners' licenses, Fox said he had not heard that issue come up on the campaign trail, but, if it became law, he would enforce it.
Fox said he had also not come across expanding the guaranteed outfitter licensing program but, as attorney general, he would "provide advice as to the legality of laws concerning hunting and fishing."