HELENA - Attorney General Steve Bullock voiced his objection Monday to the U.S. Justice Department over its recent memo banning the sale of guns or ammunition to licensed medical marijuana users and urged the agency not to prosecute anyone for now.
Bullock wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the Sept. 21 memo from the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to licensed gun dealers. The memo said it is illegal for medical marijuana cardholders to buy guns and ammunition, and illegal for dealers to sell these products to them.
The letter from Bullock followed criticism of the policy last week from all three members of Montana's congressional delegation, Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and Rep. Denny Rehberg. A firearms advocacy group and a medical marijuana group had earlier blasted the memo.
Bullock told Holder said he's willing to work with the U.S. Justice Department staff "on exploring a reasonable solution to the problems created by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives letter."
The goal, he said, is to find an approach that works for the Montana and the other 15 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana.
"This would be much better than the type of unilateral proclamation represented by the ATF letter, which was issued without any advance notice or discussion with the elected officials who represent more than one-fourth of this nation's population and one-third of its states," Bullock wrote.
"In the meantime, I respectfully request that the Department of Justice not pursue any criminal prosecutions against law-abiding citizens in Montana who exercise their constitutional rights to possess guns and enjoy hunting, or the licensees who are implicitly threatened by ATF's letter."
Bullock said Montana had about 200,000 hunters last year, and the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks sold more than 580,000 hunting licenses. As Montanans purchase guns and ammunition from sporting good stores, some of them may also have medical marijuana cards, he said.
Bullock said the federal memo essentially warns firearms dealers they cannot sell ammunition or guns to people who use medical marijuana, "even if the person uses it in full compliance with state law that authorizes its use for medical purposes."
"The letter even takes it a step further by emphasizing that ATF is placing the responsibility on licensees to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe that the purchaser did not accurately fill out the ATF forms," Bullock said.
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Bullock said the federal letter raises Second and Fifth amendment constitutional issues over the right to bear arms, equal protection and due process. In addition, he said, hunting is a constitutionally protected activity in Montana.
The Montana attorney general said he certainly recognizes the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution and the importance of maintaining a federal union, but added: "In our federal system of dual sovereignty, I respectfully suggest that the federal government should act in a careful manner when its laws and policies involve conflicts with those of the state."
Bullock conceded there had been abuses and problems with medical marijuana laws in various states, including Montana, but these states have sought to find workable solutions.
"In doing so, however, we also face issues that are, candidly, created or exacerbated by federal actions and policies that do not always reflect the kind of careful approach and appropriate accommodation that should be accorded the state," said Bullock, a Democrat running for governor in 2012.
Medical marijuana industry officials have said that changing federal policies on the issue have created problems. Federal authorities raided more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana growing and dispensing operations earlier this year as the Legislature was considering medical marijuana bills.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, called Bullock's letter to Holder "a good first step." He said he looks forward to seeing "actual deeds" by state elected officials in following up on the issue.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.