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Background checks on gun sales in Missoula

Missoula gun background check sponsors introduce amendments to proposal

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Missoula antique gun collector and dealer Hayes Otoupalik, left, and Missoula City Council president Marilyn Marler, discuss issues during a recent City Council meeting. 

Sponsors of an ordinance requiring background checks on gun sales and transfers within the city of Missoula are offering several amendments to the measure brought forward by critics, including an exemption for holders of a concealed weapons permit.

Supporters of the ordinance, however, have questioned the value of the changes.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee took up the proposed ordinance for the third time, hearing testimony from both camps.

The newest amendments restate Montana Code Annotated and the power granted to local governments by the Legislature to “prevent and suppress the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors.”

The changes also include an exemption to holders of a valid Montana concealed weapons permit, or the holder of a similar permit in another state legally recognized under Montana law.

“The point has been made that concealed weapons permit holders have already gone through a background check,” said Ward 1 council member and co-sponsor Bryan von Lossberg. “There have been a lot of details around that process that merit the council’s discussion and analysis.”

Sponsors have also made changes to language clarifying the exemption of transferees younger than 18 years old. Critics of the ordinance lauded the sponsors for considering the recommendations, “so as not to leave (the ordinance) open to absurd interpretation.”

“I hope the council continues on this path to identify, seek the input of and recognize all stakeholders that may be affected in any way by the proposed ordinance, and to continue with any future draft changes with diligence,” said opponent Mark McMillan.

Hayes Otoupalik also praised sponsors for adding the exemption for holders of a concealed weapons permit. During a recent committee hearing, the longtime chair of the Missoula gun show suggested that concealed permit holders have already undergone extensive background checks.

While the exemption has been added to the draft ordinance, it raised concerns among supporters of the measure, including local volunteers with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

Heidi Kendall, one of the movement’s outspoken Missoula leaders, said the exemption for concealed permits only serves to weaken the intention of the ordinance.

“It’s important for us to have a strong ordinance that keeps people safe, just as it does in the 18 states that have background checks,” Kendall said. “Yesterday, the chiefs of police came out in support of background checks. There’s a great deal of support for this in the law enforcement community. I don’t want us to lose sight of that.”

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Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins has also raised questions regarding enforcement of the ordinance, should it pass. Von Lossberg agreed that enforcement remains a question, though several ideas have been brought to city administrators for consideration.

Enforcement options could include an assurance that gun shows are equipped to conduct background checks for private party transactions, something Otoupalik has testified was possible, though not necessarily popular.

Responsible gun sellers and buyers could also offer tips if a firearm is sold or traded without the required background check, von Lossberg said.

“Those are things that can be used to identify people who are trying to violate the ordinance,” von Lossberg said. “Following the trail of guns recovered from a crime back to checking if they were possessed illegally by people is another mechanism we could use for enforcement.”

Von Lossberg said holders of a federal firearms license have been providing background checks for private party transactions for years.

He noted an open letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives urging federal firearms licensees to “enhance public safety and assist law enforcement by facilitating transfers of firearms between private individuals through their businesses.”

The language has been added to the ordinance, though license holders are not required to provide the service.

“This is not compulsory – we’re not requiring that dealers provide this service,” said von Lossberg. “In other locations that require this, some dealers absolutely refuse to provide this service, and some dealers have been providing this service for several years and continue to do so.”

While Otoupalik lauded sponsors for amending the ordinance to exempt concealed permit holders, he remained critical of background checks in general.

Otoupalik, including some supporters, has encouraged the city to consider offering background checks as a public service.

“When a dealer fills out this form (ATF Form 4473), he’s responsible for every single thing that goes on it,” Otoupalik told the committee. “If you guys want to fill this out, you ought to figure out from the ATF if you can be responsible for it and leave it out of the hands of private business.”

Dean McCollom, a critic of the proposal, told the committee the process was moving too quickly. The Public Health and Safety Committee initially took up the issue Sept. 23. Several hearings have since been held both in committee and before the full City Council, totaling more than six hours of discussion.

Members of the committee said Wednesday the proposed ordinance is not near its final form and will undergo several more hearings.

“I think we’ve been going pretty slowly on this,” Wilkins said. “These questions will be answered before we go much further. This process will take a while.”

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