Missoula Further Isolates Itself with Gun Ordinance

by William Skink

Over a week ago a 24 year old punk pulled a gun and fired it during an altercation near the California Street bridge. This occurred around 8pm in the evening. There is no information yet about how this punk obtained his firearm, though I would hazard a guess that he didn’t obtain it legally, so the local ordinance that passed on a 8-4 vote on Monday, if that is the case, would have had no impact on this particular use of gun violence.

While proponents of this local gun ordinance claim they have public opinion on their side, it’s more than likely going to take the courts to determine if Missoula has the law on its side. That’s because there is specific state law prohibiting local municipalities from regulating guns. Here is a snip from an Indy article from July:

Montana, like most other states, has a law written specifically to stop local governments from regulating guns. Known as “preemption,” it states that no city, town or other local government body may “prohibit, register, tax, license, or regulate the purchase, sale or other transfer (including delay in purchase, sale, or other transfer), ownership, possession, transportation, use, or unconcealed carrying of any weapon, including a rifle, shotgun, handgun, or concealed handgun.”

Passed in 1985, Montana’s preemption law was the first piece of Montana gun legislation Marbut lobbied for, before the MSSA was founded. He says it “helps articulate and preserve a fundamental constitutional right” and prevents gun owners from being forced to navigate a dizzying patchwork of rules. It’s also the product of a nationwide lobbying effort by the NRA, beginning in the ’80s, to keep gun regulation out of the hands of local officials. Today, 43 states have done just that.

But preemption wasn’t on von Lossberg’s mind when he was first approached by members of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action. Rather, he was struck by data they presented to argue that expanding background checks could reduce gun-related violence.

So, am I to infer from this that state law just doesn’t matter to our local officials if data shows a local ordinance “could” reduce gun-related violence? How quickly will this issue be thrown to the courts? Do our local officials want to exist in a perpetual state of litigation? What gives? Here’s a little more from the article:

Expanded background check policies have wide support in public opinion polls, but legislation has gone nowhere with lawmakers in Helena. Von Lossberg sees this as an opportunity for Missoula to take the lead.

“If they’re not going to be talking about this at the state level, and Congress continues to be deadlocked, what I can look to influence is right in front of me,” he says.

Since preemption exists at the state level, to avoid litigation (with our tax dollars) gun regulation needs to go through Helena. Von Lossberg wants to ignore this reality, though, claiming this is an opportunity for Missoula to take the lead.

I disagree. What Missoula is doing is creating job security for lawyers and further isolating our community from the rest of the state. There will be consequences for Missoula at the next legislative session over this attempt to go-it-alone in direct conflict with established state law.

Missoula is already a pariah in Helena when the legislature is in session. Missoula politicians have actually had to get politicians from other communities to sponsor legislation because of the anti-Missoula stigma that exists. This local ordinance is the type of political maneuvering that earns our community disdain from the rest of the state.

Is it worth it? Will the benefits of forcing background checks within city limits outweigh the cost of litigation and stigmatization that will inevitably follow? I mentioned in a previous post a column last year from Dan Brooks that I think is still quite relevant to this topic. Here is a bit from that piece, titled Bad Aim:

The premise of this proposed ordinance is that such people have already proved willing to inconvenience themselves to buy guns by waiting for gun shows instead of visiting a licensed shop. Requiring background checks at gun shows within city limits might keep some of these people from buying guns, but all it guarantees is that they won’t buy guns in Missoula.

The next Hamilton Gun Show is scheduled for Dec. 4-6 at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, approximately one hour’s drive from City Hall. That’s farther than 10 miles, and it will keep guns away from mentally ill felons who ride the bus. Otherwise, it will only require that people who want to buy firearms pass a criminal background check or know someone who has a car.

It will also incur as much howling as any other law that might prevent someone from buying a gun. The gun-control discussion has collapsed into binary opposition between people who oppose any new regulation and people who are desperate to pass something—anything—that might curb America’s absurd level of gun violence.

I tend to fall into the second camp, and I support Lossberg et al.’s spirit. I support the efforts of Everytown and Moms Demand Action. I cannot support this ordinance, however, because I think it is likely to provoke opposition from gun show participants without making it meaningfully harder for felons to get guns.

After removing one’s personal ideology and emotionalism from this debate, a more objective cost/benefit analysis doesn’t support the argument that this local ordinance is worth the cost of provoking more political opposition and ensuring Missoula will once again be going to court to spend our tax dollars on a toothless, geographically narrow ordinance that won’t have the impact supporters envision.

But when has reality ever stopped our local government? At least they will be able to say they “did something” when the next tragedy occurs. Too bad that something won’t get at the underlying factors involved in gun violence, like mental health issues, lack of access to treatment for addiction, and a broken criminal justice system.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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4 Responses to Missoula Further Isolates Itself with Gun Ordinance

  1. JC says:

    It’s symbolic, the great panacea for doing something — anything — instead of dealing with the root of societies problems in the first place. And there’s no greater source of symbolic political behavior than our local city commission.

    And it’s symbolic similarly to a requirement that citizens in the city limits submit to background checks before they purchase sign-making supplies to make placards to wander around with at the next protest. Who knows, somebody might write something on a placard that hurts someone else’s feelings. But citizens can always go buy their sign-making supplies in Lake or Ravalli County.

  2. JC says:

    The Missoulian lays out the legal arguments beginning to coalesce among legislative leaders and AG:

    The speaker of the Montana House says he will ask state Attorney General Tim Fox to weigh in on the validity of the private gun sale background check ordinance passed by the Missoula City Council on Monday.

    In a post on his Facebook page, Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, wrote that he believes the new ordinance violates state and federal laws and wants a legal opinion from Fox.

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