Earlier this month Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill aimed at blocking Missoula’s attempts to regulate firearms at the local level. The veto triggered a companion bill that places the issue on the ballot, meaning Montana voters will decide in the 2020 general election whether local governments may pass local gun laws, or if such matters must be determined only at the state and federal levels.
House Bill 325, sponsored by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Columbia Falls, passed the Legislature along party lines, with majority Republicans backing the proposal to amend state concealed weapons laws to prohibit local governments from enforcing their own regulations. The bill’s text explained that it was intended to prevent a “patchwork of restrictions by local governments across the state,” but thus far, Missoula is the only local government in the state seeking to enact such restrictions.
After much public debate, in 2016 Missoula’s city councilors approved an ordinance essentially requiring a background check for all private gun sales within city limits, with a short list of exceptions. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox immediately declared the ordinance unenforceable. Missoula objected, and this past October, a Missoula District Court judge ruled in the city’s favor. Fox has appealed that ruling, setting up a final battle in the state Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Republican state legislators sought to settle the question through the legislative branch with a pair of bills putting Missoula squarely in the crosshairs. Indeed, the Montana Shooting Sports Association, headed by Gary Marbut of Missoula, described HB 325 as the “fix Missoula” bill, writing to MSSA members that it would “amend the Montana ‘preemption law’ at 45-8-351 to prevent ongoing abuse of the law that limits all local government's power to regulate firearms — to prevent a patchwork of gun control laws across Montana.”
Anticipating a veto by Bullock, Republican legislators passed a second bill, HB 357, that contains identical language, but which does not require the governor’s signature. It states that if the first bill should fail to become law, voters will have the ultimate say via referendum in next year’s election.
This leaves Montana voters many months in which to consider whether local governments should be allowed to pass more restrictive gun laws. The Supreme Court is likely to issue a ruling before the election that will hopefully provide some additional legal clarity.
In the wake of tragic mass shootings across the nation and even multiple shootings here in Missoula, and in response to Montana’s relatively high rate of gun-related deaths, local community leaders should be applauded for seeking solutions to gun violence.
And while Missoula has a reputation for embracing liberal policies, its gun ordinance is actually fairly conservative. Current municipal code simply requires a background check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for firearm sales and transfers, except transfers between family members, licensed dealers and collectors, and those with a concealed weapons permit, among a few others. The full list of exceptions and the relevant portion of city code are readily available on the city’s website, at https://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/2515/Firearms-Background-Checks.
In addition to the background check ordinance, in October 2018, the Missoula City Council voted to expand gun-free zones to parks, polling places and public buildings in city limits.
These local laws are not at all drastic, nor are they confusing. And while they may pose a minor, temporary inconvenience at times, it seems a small thing to ask in exchange for a safer community.
Missoula should be allowed to see if this works. Other communities in Montana may want to follow suit — or they may want to try a different approach. In either case, they should at least have the option.