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Missoula to consider expanding gun control measure

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Two versions of the Sig Sauer P320.

Missoula’s ban on carrying firearms in some public buildings could be expanded under an emergency amendment to a city ordinance that will be discussed by the council Oct. 15.

The emergency amendment is needed if the city wants to prohibit people from bringing weapons into polling places during the Nov. 6 midterm election, and was created at the request of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, the Missoula Public Library and the Missoula Art Museum, according to Marty Rehbein, the city clerk and legislative services director.

“There has been some concern about open and concealed carry at polling places,” Rehbein told the city council on Wednesday. “So the county attorney’s office has kind of found a gray area in the laws with respect to whether that’s allowed or not.

“A lot of the polling places are in schools, and there’s no open carry or concealed carry allowed in public schools. But there are a considerable amount of polling locations that are not in schools and so this was kind of a gray area of the city’s law.”

The ordinance would update and clarify the current prohibition on concealed or open carrying of firearms and explosive devices in City Hall and public school buildings. It would add the prohibition to the Missoula City Council chambers, any building where the City Council meets, public art museums, the public library, public parks under the city’s jurisdiction, and “any other locations of public assembly where persons gather together to conduct and/or administer any public election while election related activities are taking place.”

A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Oct. 15 in the council chambers at 140 S. Pine St.

The ordinance is in emergency form since it can be enacted immediately, but ends after 90 days. A corresponding ordinance also under consideration by the City Council would take effect 30 days after the public hearing, and be permanent.

Julie Merritt, a City Council member who brought forth the ordinance last week, said the county attorney’s office had concerns about the city’s ordinance since it has been contacted with questions about the legality of bringing weapons into public places, and especially into polling places.

Council member Jesse Ramos asked for specific instances where this amendment would have prevented someone from being harmed, and questioned whether the proposed ordinance amendment was “just people feeling uncomfortable, or is there a specific incident because someone was using their constitutional right to bear arms or carry a weapon in a public polling place?”

Merritt responded that state law gives cities the specific right to control weapons in certain places, and “it’s plain on its face.”

“We’ve had instances of folks carrying weapons to public parks and making people feel fearful,” Merritt said. “There have been questions of people carrying in the public library and whether or not that’s legal, and questions (the) county attorney office regularly fields about carrying weapons at polling places. … The ordinance gives them clear direction on how to respond.”

Ramos’ question also prompted a swift response from council member Julie Armstrong, who noted that Ramos wasn’t sitting on the council when it passed an ordinance in 2016 requiring a background check on all gun sales in city limits, even among private parties. That ordinance was overturned by Attorney General Tim Fox in 2017, saying the city couldn’t regulate firearm sales.

“There’s no specific person or citizen that this is targeted toward,” Armstrong said. “You were not on council yet when we had the gun ordinance hearing, but there were definitely people in here who were carrying weapons that night and nothing happened, but something could have happened. And there was definitely more than one gun in the room that night. So that’s just my personal experience with this.”

Ramos cast the lone dissenting vote to holding a public hearing on the matter.

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