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HELENA – The House Judiciary Committee heard four bills Tuesday that would expand gun rights and tweak the state’s concealed weapons law, most of which drew opposition from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, as well as police chiefs, sheriffs and others.

House Bill 262 received the most testimony and the most tense discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock in 2015.

Rep. Bill Harris, R-Winnett, explained that House Bill 262 would allow people who are eligible for a concealed weapons permit to carry one without a permit, as has been legal outside the limits of Montana cities and towns since 1991.

“This bill brings about uniformity in carrying a weapon in both urban and rural environments,” he said. “In many situations it’s vital to our safety and the safety of others.”

Harris recounted the 2012 mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, suggesting that someone with a concealed weapon could have fired back and reduced the numbers of lives lost. Or, he said the attack might not have happened at all because people who commit mass shootings “are cowards” and would likely avoid a place they knew someone might be carrying a gun for self-defense.

Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, the state’s primary gun rights advocacy group, supported the bill. He noted that less than 1 percent of the state falls within city limits and that the existing law makes urban residents “second-class citizens” who are criminalized for simply putting on a coat over what would otherwise be a legal, openly carried weapon.

In Bullock’s veto letter from 2015, the governor argued such a measure would hurt citizens’ ability to purchase a weapon in Montana, end the ability to carry a concealed weapon in another state and bypass federal background checks for purchasing a weapon. Spokeswoman Marissa Perry did not say whether Bullock would veto the legislation again, just that it was being monitored.

"As a staunch defender of our Second Amendment rights, Governor Bullock has and always will preserve Montana's strong tradition of gun ownership, hunting and participation in shooting sports, while ensuring the safety of our communities," she wrote in a statement.

Marbut, who testifies as a firearms expert and Montana gun law historian in courts, disputed Bullock’s arguments, noting the bill in no way changes the existing process or rules for receiving a concealed-carry permit, nor the additional benefits they offer when purchasing a gun or traveling out-of-state.

“I hope he will update his understanding of it when it gets to his desk,” Marbut said.

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Roxanne Weikel with the Montana Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, spoke against the bill, noting she is “a mother, a grandmother, a volunteer and also a gun owner.”

“Like most rights this comes with responsibilities to ourselves and to our communities,” she said, arguing the bill would gut the ability of law enforcement “to keep guns out of dangerous hands” and allow and encourage people to carry concealed weapons without training as is currently required to receive a permit.

Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Montana Human Rights Network testified against several of the bills as promoting a climate that makes Montanans feel unsafe and encourages hate groups, such as anti-government organizations and white supremacists, to operate in the state because of its reputation for lax gun laws.

Organizations for police chiefs and sheriffs also spoke against the bill as a matter of public safety. The Montana Chamber of Commerce worried how it would affect the rights of businesses to exclude firearms from workplaces. The teachers union was concerned it would weaken the ability of schools to keep guns off their campuses, and Robin Turner from the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said it would take away a tool law enforcement sometimes uses to intervene in incidents of partner and family member violence.

The committee did not take action on any of Tuesday's bills, although Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, said they might take them up for votes on Friday.

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