Gun firearm law justice court

If only there were some magic words that could rescue us from this national nightmare in which the same horrific scenario plays out over and over again, with only the location changing. Last weekend, it was El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least 31 people died in just those two tragic incidents. Many more were injured.

And across the nation, Americans were left reeling once again, while grappling with how to respond to this ongoing epidemic and make our communities safer.

In Montana, voters have 14 more long months before we decide whether to take a small step forward — or a big step back — with local gun laws. A legislative referendum on the November 2020 ballot places the ability of local governments to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn’t have them, and to restrict firearms from public places, at risk.

In the meantime, more are sure to be seriously injured and killed by firearms in Montana and in other states. Thoughts and prayers and moments of silence will continue to be offered, and politicians will continue to debate the merits of various solutions to gun violence.

Many Montanans may be feeling frustrating and hopeless, but we are not at all helpless. Those of us who are gun owners can take pains to make sure our firearms are securely stored at all times. Everyone, gun owner or not, can familiarize themselves with the warning signs that often precede a suicide attempt, and learn what steps to take in response.

And we can all resolve to shut down inflammatory rhetoric on whatever platform it rears its ugly head, even when — especially when — it favors “our side” of an issue. It’s high time to stop demonizing others, and stop empowering those teetering on the edge of violence to attack others.

The recent attack on a 13-year-old boy at the Mineral County fair provides a good case in point. A veteran with an apparent traumatic brain injury cited President Trump’s comments as justification for the assault — because the boy was wearing a hat during the national anthem.

Fortunately, the alleged assailant didn't use a gun; if he had, the outcome could have been much, much worse. As it is, the boy suffered a concussion and skull fracture.

Curt Brockway, 39, was taken into custody by local law enforcement and later released. His arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 14. Brockway’s family and attorney are now receiving threatening messages. As unacceptable and inexcusable as this attack was, it should not be used as an invitation to incite further violence.

Instead of further whipping unstable individuals into a frenzy, we should all be looking for ways to identify them and remove any instruments of violence they may use to vent their anger. And we should all be seeking points of agreement on how to stop shooters before they can kill.

That is one of the things Missoula has been trying to do since September 2016, when the City Council approved an ordinance expanding background check requirements to cover all private gun sales within city limits, with a short but broad list of exceptions (such as between family members, or for antique firearms).

It sparked a debate even before it passed, with Montana Attorney General Tim Fox saying the ordinance “likely violates our constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” and City Attorney Jim Nugent noting that under Montana law, local government already has the authority to conduct background checks.

Then, a state legislative leader from Culbertson asked fellow Republican Fox, now a candidate for governor, to provide an opinion on the matter. Fox determined that the ordinance was unenforceable because local governments lack the power to limit the sale or transfer of firearms. Last year, a state judge rejected Fox’s opinion, and the case is now facing appeal in the Montana Supreme Court.

Which brings us to earlier this year, when state legislators from outside Missoula ganged up to pass not one but two pieces of legislation challenging the ordinance. The first, sponsored by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, passed along party lines and was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

But this merely triggered the companion legislation, which places language echoing the vetoed bill on the November 2020 ballot. This means Montana voters will have to decide whether Missoula and other local governments can enforce local gun laws.

The worrisome thing is that Legislative Referendum 130 seeks to not only reverse Missoula’s progress but also remove the power of every community in Montana to regulate firearms.

It would overturn decades of state law upholding local control — long touted by Montanans as the preferred approach to tackling community problems. That way, different places maintain the freedom to experiment to see what works best, and other governments can watch and learn from them.

Currently, local governments in Montana routinely regulate the carrying of concealed weapons, and do not allow the possession of firearms by “convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors." Also, local governments can restrict firearms from public places — such as schools, polling locations and parks.

LR-130 would end this authority. That should worry every Montanan in every corner of the state.

We may not be ready to agree on new legislation, on assault weapons bans or red flag laws. But we can all agree that certain people shouldn’t have guns: people who have a history of violence, who present an imminent risk of harm to themselves or others, or who are not mentally able to handle the responsibility of owning a gun.

And surely we can agree that the lawful authorities in our communities should have the ability to keep guns out of the hands of these individuals.

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