HELENA - State Rep. Ed Butcher has been packing heat for 30 years.
"I carry at all times," the Winifred Republican said in a recent interview.
Today, Butcher carries a .38 caliber pistol, but back in 1979 it was a .22 handgun that saved his life.
A man was coming at him, intending to kill him, Butcher believes.
"He didn't think I carried a gun," he said. Butcher pulled out his .22 pistol and held it to the man's forehead. You've never seen eyes get so big so fast, Butcher said. The man backed down.
"It's one of those things where I'd probably be dead in that situation if I hadn't had it," said Butcher. "It saved my life once and I'm a firm believer in it."
Butcher has never again drawn his concealed pistol. He is one of nine state lawmakers with a concealed weapons permit, a Lee Newspapers investigation showed, and the only one to ever brandish the firearm. Most of the nine lawmakers said they seldom carry a concealed weapon, but like the freedom of being able to do so.
Since 1991, state law has allowed Montanans to pay $50 and apply for a permit to carry a concealed handgun. County sheriffs issue the permits, after conducting a background check and requesting proof of some kind of gun training.
Today, 15,976 Montanans have a concealed weapons permit, or about 2 percent of the state's adult population. State lawmakers, however, are almost three times more likely to have a concealed weapons permit. A recent Lee Newspapers investigation shows that while not one statewide elected official has a concealed weapons permit, nine of the 150 lawmakers do, or 6 percent of the total.
Of the nine, two are Democrats, six are Republicans; one, Rick Jore of Ronan, is a Constitution Party member and the only member of his party in the Montana Legislature.
Most live outside city limits, where permits are not required to carry a concealed handgun. Two, including Butcher, obtained their permits decades ago, when District Court judges granted such permits and they were not widely available. One, Rep. Ed Hilert, R-Glendive, is a captain in the Montana Highway Patrol and, by law, is allowed to carry a concealed handgun even without a permit.
Proctor Republican Rep. Janna Taylor is the only woman in the Legislature with a concealed weapons permit. An avid bird hunter, Taylor said she is good with a gun. She got her permit about four years ago so she would have "a little extra protection" on her long trips to Helena and back when the Legislature was in session.
"As a female, I'm not going to carry (my gun) in plain sight," she said. "It's also my right to carry a gun."
Taylor said she doesn't carry her gun every day and has never needed to use it. Once, her car slid off a mountain pass when it was 17 below zero. Taylor was alone and said her gun gave her reassurance as she waited for help.
"I'm always glad to have it," she said.
Many lawmakers got their concealed weapons permits for similar reasons: the desire to protect themselves, if necessary, and a philosophical belief in the right of citizens to arm themselves, if they so choose.
"I decided I was going to get (my license) before they made it harder to get," said Jore.
Jore said he rarely carries his pistol with him, but believes he should have the right to, regardless.
No lawful gun owner in Montana needs a permit to carry a gun in plain sight. But if you want to slip a handgun in your pocket where no one can see it, that's another story. Such concealed weapons are against the law and people caught breaking it can face a $500 fine and six months in the county jail.
The law also forbids concealed daggers, sword canes, brass knuckles - even slingshots, but you can't get a permit to legally carry those kinds of weapons. Conceal carry permits are good only for handguns.
In most parts of Montana, people don't need a permit to carry a concealed handgun, said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the main author of the current law. Concealed weapons are illegal only inside city limits or within the boundaries of a "logging, lumbering, mining or railroad camp."
There are some exceptions: If you are hunting, hiking, working on a ranch or doing other things in which "weapons are often carried for recreation or protection," you can keep your weapon hidden, even if you're in town, according to the law.
Many lawmakers said they got their permits because they sometimes travel with a gun concealed in the car for protection. They didn't want to run afoul of the law if they ever got pulled over inside the city limits.
But a gun tucked under the seat or in a glove compartment is not illegal, Marbut said, even within the city limits. Montana law only forbids guns carried on your person, "wholly or partially covered by clothing or wearing apparel."
Guns in backpacks and briefcases are also legal, Marbut said. There's been some debate surrounding guns in a woman's purse. Is a purse luggage? Or is it "wearing apparel." If a purse is luggage, then a gun concealed inside it would seem to be legal, he said. But if a purse is considered "wearing apparel," then hiding a gun in one would be against the law.
The issue is yet unresolved, but three county attorneys in the state have weighed in on the debate. The county attorneys of Yellowstone, Missoula and Lewis and Clark counties have said that purses are luggage, not apparel, and guns in purses are therefore legal without a permit.
The Lewis and Clark County attorney who made that announcement was Mike McGrath, now the state's attorney general and a candidate for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.
There are certain places where concealed guns are always illegal. One such place is the Capitol building; it says so right on the door.
All of the lawmakers interviewed for this story said they have never brought their gun to the Capitol. All, that is, except one: Butcher.
Butcher, who carries his handgun with him every day and has served in the Legislature since 2001, wouldn't say if he's ever brought his gun into the building.
"Why would I want to tell you that?" he said with a laugh.
Theories varied on why lawmakers, more than other Montanans, are more likely to have a conceal carry permit. Bozeman Republican Rep. Roger Koopman said he thought lawmakers, because they extensively deal with laws, may be more likely to know when a concealed weapons permit is required.
Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, has had a permit since shortly after they became widely available. He said most lawmakers have to travel long distances commuting to and from Helena and may want one for protection on the road.
"You just never know who you're going to run into," he said.
Concealed weapons: Who's got 'em?
Rep. Ed Butcher,R-Winifred
Rep. Edward Hilbert, R-Glendive
Rep. Rick Jore, C-Ronan
Rep. Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman
Rep. Janna Taylor, R-Proctor
Rep. Craig Witte, R-Kalispell
Sen. Ken Hansen, D-Harlem
Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell
Sen. Joe Tropila, D-Great Falls