HELENA – If Montana has its way in a lawsuit filed Thursday, there will be far less federal gun control in the state.
The state’s libertarian streak — which has spawned efforts to buck the federal Real ID Act and sparked widespread contempt for the Patriot Act — is now triggering a fight over whether Montana should have sovereignty over made-in-Montana guns and equipment.
If gun advocates win, the state could decide which rules, if any, would control the manufacturer, sale and purchase of guns and paraphernalia. And Montana would be exempt from rules on federal gun registration, background checks and dealer-licensing.
“For guns, it means we can make our own in Montana and sell them in Montana as long as they are stamped ‘Made in Montana’ and don’t leave the state,” said Gary Marbut, who runs the Montana Shooting Sports Association and is leading the lawsuit. “We will be able to do that without federal regulation, or having the ATF breath down your neck.”
The association, joined by the Second Amendment Foundation in the lawsuit, hopes to ultimately win a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits the application and reach of federal rules over state business. The suit is challenging the right of the federal government to oversee gun sales under the guise of interstate commerce regulation.
The filing in U.S. District Court in Missoula comes a day after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would consider a challenge to Chicago’s handgun ban and adds to a growing list of federal lawsuits filed by gun-rights proponents that challenge local or federal gun control laws.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reminded gun dealers last summer that federal laws still apply, even though the state passed its “declaration” and advised them that they need to properly mark guns, fully record and report all sales, conduct background checks and follow all the rules.
“These, as well as other Federal requirements and prohibitions, apply whether or not the firearms or ammunition have crossed state lines,” assistant ATF director Carson Carroll wrote in a letter to dealers.
That warning was prompted by a bill passed by the Montana Legislature earlier in the year, known as the Montana Firearms Freedom Act. It went into effect Thursday and declared that Montana held authority over guns made in the state.
Attacking federal gun control was an easy target in a state like Montana, where politicians of all stripes actively seek the endorsement of gun rights groups.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, said the lawsuit is a way for the state to assert its sovereignty. But it’s important that the state not pay the legal costs, he said.
“I can’t predict what’s going to happen in federal court,” said Schweitzer. “You never know. If you don’t take a shot, you can’t score.”
Tennessee has passed a similar declaration, although no lawsuit has been filed there yet.
In Montana, there were only a few opponents in the Legislature. Some argued that the declaration and ensuing lawsuit were the results of right-wing paranoia.
The bill only advanced in the Legislature because of arguments it would spur economic development with gun manufacturing, said Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network. Other issues will arise if Montana gun advocates are successful, he said.
“What happens when these guns do show up in other states and what if they are used to commit crimes in other states?” McAdam said.
Marbut pointed out that it is already against the law for felons in Montana to buy guns, and it would be illegal under federal rules to take a made-in-Montana gun to another state. The Montana Firearms Freedom Act does specify that things like machine guns or guns that shoot explosive projectiles are not allowed.
But any further Montana-specific gun rules, such as background checks, would have to be debated later. Marbut said Montana was doing fine before such federal rules existed, and probably doesn’t need any such regulation.
“Whether Montana would enact any other regulation, is really a public policy decision the Legislature would need to make,” Marbut said. “I’d be willing to listen to ideas about it. But I don’t see any crying need for anything.”
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