Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks on gun buyers before making a sale, but no similar law applies to the sale or transfer of guns between private parties.
It’s a loophole that makes it easy for criminals and the mentally ill to buy a weapon, some say, and the city of Missoula wants to address it at the local level.
On Wednesday, the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee took the first step in approving an ordinance that will require criminal background checks for all gun sales and transfers within city limits.
Backers believe they have community support for the proposal, and they’ll take the issue to the full City Council next month, where it likely has the votes needed to pass.
“The vast majority of gun owners who want to do transfers are law-abiding citizens,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “They actually see value in making sure people who are mentally ill, the felons – the three prongs of the test – can’t acquire a gun.”
The proposal has the local support of Moms Demand Action, a national group with a large local chapter pushing for “gun sense in America.” The Missoula office on Relationship Violence Services also supports the measure.
Nancy de Pastino of Moms Demand Action said the rule would make it difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to buy a gun from a private seller who may not know the person’s history.
“This country has a major gun violence problem,” said de Pastino. “But there’s something we can do about that. Background checks are the single most effective way to save lives by keeping guns out of dangerous hands.”
As proposed, a private seller and a private buyer would visit a gun dealer to run a background check on the buyer. The proposed law would not require checks for a gun transfer between immediate family members or for the transfer of antique firearms between collectors.
Also, it would not require a check for the temporary transfer of a firearm for use in emergency self-defense.
“The problem we’re facing is that federal law doesn’t require background checks for non-dealers, so dangerous people can buy guns easily from non-licensed or private sellers,” said Heidi Kendall, who supported the ordinance. “Private sales matter because there are a lot of them.”
Kendall said more than 500 firearms are listed for sale in Montana on Armslist.com. As it currently stands, supporters say, a buyer could purchase any one of those guns – including assault rifles – without disclosing their criminal past or mental health.
Supporters also argue that background checks have proven to work in the 18 states that require them. In those states, they said, 46 percent fewer women are shot by their intimate partners, and 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers are killed by handguns.
“There’s community support for this,” said de Pastino. “There are Missoulians who believe in gun rights who support this proposal.”
While nobody from the public spoke against the proposal at Wednesday’s hearing, the president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association has already voiced his opposition to the plan.
Gary Marbut said the ordinance is filled with problems, both legal and practical. He has brought several firearms bills to the state Legislature – including one to allow citizens to carry a concealed gun without a permit almost everywhere and another to allow guns on college campuses.
Through his attorney Quentin Rhoades, Marbut said the ordinance would violate state law – a point the city disagrees with. He also said it’s currently illegal under state and federal law for felons, minors and the mentally incompetent to possess a firearm.
“It’s already illegal under federal or state law for a person to knowingly sell a firearm to one of those people,” Marbut said. “People who obtain firearms for crime do not buy them through legitimate channels of commerce. They steal firearms, or buy them from other criminals who also ignore the laws.”
Supporters of the ordinance acknowledged that determined criminals would find a way to acquire a firearm. But they also said those who make such arguments in an attempt to pan the ordinance are missing the point.
They believe the ordinance would create a law where no law exists by making it illegal to sell or buy a gun in a private transaction without first obtaining a background check. Reasonable people, including gun owners, will want to comply with the law, they said.
“It might make a difference for one life,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. “If it makes a difference for one life, I’m going to support it.”
The ordinance passed through the committee with one dissenting vote cast by Ward 4 council member Annelise Hedahl, though she offered no testimony explaining her opposition.
Still, other members of the committee were skeptical the ordinance could pass legal muster, or if it would help reduce gun violence.
Ward 2 council member Adam Hertz said it was unlikely that felons would follow the ordinance. He also said the perpetrators in several high-profile mass shootings passed a federal background check.
“By making something illegal, it doesn’t stop people from wanting to get it,” Hertz said. “They’re not going to follow a background check if they intend to murder, rob or commit a gun crime.”
But Mayor John Engen and several others said the ordinance was only a modest step in resolving a bigger problem.
After the 2012 massacre of 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Engen said he could no longer pretend that gun violence didn’t matter, and that background checks couldn’t help prevent a similar act in Missoula.
“We have a responsibility here to take a small action – and this is a small action – that could make a difference in our community,” Engen said. “I would suggest that our Legislature ought to consider this, but it’s not, so we’re left in the box of trying to figure this out for ourselves. This might be hard, but I think it’s worth it.”
Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler, who helped sponsor the ordinance with council members von Lossberg and Emily Bentley, said as a gun owner, she’d want to know who she was selling her firearm to.
“I’d feel better knowing there’s a background check and taking the buyer to a dealer to get a background check,” Marler said. “I don’t see it as being a big inconvenience. I wouldn’t want to sell a gun to somebody that can’t pass a federal background check.”
De Pastino said the 1993 Brady Bill, which requires a federal background check on individuals buying a firearm from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer, was written before the evolution of the Internet, where guns are now listed and sold without knowing the buyer’s history.
“Because that language is not in the Brady Bill about the Internet sales of guns, it’s up to state and local governments right now to enact laws to close the loophole the Internet has caused in the background check system,” de Pastino said.
Shantelle Gaynor, director of Relationship Violence Services, said victims of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable to gun violence.
Compared to states with background checks, she said, women in Montana are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner with a gun.
“This is a small step, but it’s one our community has an opportunity to lead on,” Gaynor said. “It says we’re committed to doing something.”
The first of two readings before the full City Council takes place Oct. 19. The ordinance would become law 30 days after adoption and passage.