HELENA – Montana-made guns may form the basis for a court showdown over states’ rights if the governor signs a bill to release some firearms in the state from federal regulation.
The proposed law aims to exempt firearms, weapons components and ammunition made in Montana and kept in Montana from federal gun laws. Since the state has few gun laws of its own, the legislation would allow some gunowners and sellers in the state to skirt registration, licensing requirements and background checks entirely.
“We’d like to just be able to make our own guns here in Montana and have the feds stay out of it,” said Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, which helped draft the bill.
The real target, though, is the U.S. Supreme Court. And Marbut and others believe they can hit that mark with a simple Montana-made youth-model single-shot bolt-action .22 rifle.
In particular, they plan to find a “squeaky clean” Montanan who wants to send a note to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives threatening to build and sell about 20 such rifles without federal dealership licensing. If the ATF tells them it’s illegal, they will then file a lawsuit in federal court — with any luck triggering a legal battle that lands in the nation’s highest court.
House Bill 246 sailed through the Montana Legislature, but Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not yet offered a position on the measure, which awaits his action.
The federal enforcement agency for gun laws has also not taken a firm stand.
“ATF is not going to take a position on this because we don’t make any of the laws, we just enforce the laws that Congress makes,” said Carrie DiPirro, spokeswoman for the Denver field division, which oversees Montana.
Through the Constitution, Congress has authority to regulate interstate commerce, which serves as the legal basis for gun regulation in the United States.
Efforts to bypass that authority have been heard before by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, the court upheld federal regulation of marijuana in California, even if its use is limited to noncommercial purposes — such as medical reasons — and it is grown and used within a state’s borders.
However, Randy Barnett, the lawyer and constitutional scholar who represented the plaintiff in the California case, said the introduction of a “Made in Montana’ stamp — and stay in Montana guideline — might give some mettle to Montana’s latest pitch for sovereignty.
In the Gonzalez v. Raich case argued by Barnett, the court said that because marijuana produced within and outside of California is essentially indistinguishable, the government must regulate both to enforce national drug laws. Montana, though, could potentially argue that its guns are sufficiently unique and segregated as to lie outside of overarching federal regulatory schemes, Barnett said.
The Montana effort follows fears here and elsewhere that the election of Barack Obama as president would trigger more gun regulation, sparking a rush to stock up on firearms in the months following the inauguration.
But supporters insist House Bill 246 has been tailored to hit a different bull’s eye than gun freedoms.
“Firearms are inextricably linked to the history and culture of Montana, and I’d like to support that,” said bill sponsor Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, during its House debate. “But I want to point out that the issue here is not about firearms. It’s about state rights.”
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