Schools and Municipalities Oppose Measure to Restrict Local Authority Over Firearms

LR-130, sponsored by Reps. Matt Regier and Derek Skees, will appear on voter ballots and would restrict local government authority to regulate weapons

By Myers Reece
Montana State Capitol. Beacon file photo

A Republican-sponsored measure that would restrict local authority to regulate both concealed and unconcealed weapons will appear on voters’ ballots this fall, although it faces opposition from school organizations and the Montana League of Cities and Towns, which represents the state’s 127 incorporated municipalities, among other groups.

Opponents argue the language of Legislative Referendum-130 is misleading and disguises its true intent and repercussions, threatening to upend longstanding precedent of local regulatory control. If the measure is approved, they say local government entities, including school boards, will be restricted in their authority to regulate firearms at places such as school property, city parks and public assemblies.

Critics are also concerned about LR-130’s proposal to specifically remove local control over regulating firearm possession by “convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors” without mentioning potential impacts on background checks. Others, including some Republican legislators, are against taking the issue directly to voters rather than through the legislative process.

“In Montana, we trust local citizens to decide how to keep their communities safe,” Tim Burton, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said last week. “The laws that are in place have been in place for over 130 years, and LR-130 would take that local control away. Why change something that works and has worked for over 130 years?”

“In addition to that,” Burton added, “LR-130 is bad for Montana. It’s a poorly written ballot initiative. It’s confusing, unnecessary, unconstitutional. We still can’t figure out what they’re trying to accomplish with it, and we’re going to continue to oppose it right up until Election Day.”

Proponents argue that LR-130 would prevent a patchwork of inconsistent gun-control laws from community to community, while deferring to federal and state laws on the books. They say that allowing individual local entities to craft their own definitions and rules creates legal uncertainty and confusion for permitted concealed weapon carriers. They further contend that the measure won’t impact schools.

Reps. Matt Regier and Derek Skees, both Republicans from the Flathead Valley, were the bill’s sponsors, and the legislation passed largely along party lines, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.

Regier said he learned through the legislative process that the cities of Libby and Culbertson ban concealed weapons in cemeteries, and pointed to those as examples of the need for consistent laws and restrictions on municipalities’ rulemaking authority.

“I’m a concealed permit holder, and I never knew that,” Regier said. “I want to follow the law. That’s the whole reason we get a permit. I’d say 99.9% of concealed permit holders don’t know that’s illegal.”

The Montana Legislature passed the referendum proposal, House Bill 357, at the 2019 session. The measure was identical to a separate bill vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock. Referendum proposals only require a simple majority vote in the state House and Senate, taking Bullock’s veto pen out of the equation and sending the issue directly to voters.

The language that will appear on voters’ ballots states that “LR-130 generally restricts a county, city, town, consolidated local government, or other local government unit’s authority to regulate the carrying of firearms. It removes a local government unit’s power to regulate the carrying of permitted concealed weapons or to restrict the carrying of unconcealed firearms except in publicly owned and occupied buildings under the local government unit’s jurisdiction.”

Regier says discussions to address local control were prompted by a City of Missoula ordinance passed in 2016 to require background checks for all gun sales and transfers within the city, including at gun shows. Attorney General Tim Fox challenged the ordinance. A district court ruled in favor of Missoula, but the state Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision, which Regier says supports the argument for his measure.

Last year, six groups filed a lawsuit against LR-130 in Montana Supreme Court, including the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana School Boards Association, Montana League of Cities and Towns, City of Missoula, Montana Human Rights Network and Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.

The plaintiffs argued the measure is “misleading and does not express a true, impartial or fair explanation,” and said the language should be revised, citing three main grievances: the ballot statement doesn’t identify “local government units;” doesn’t list the proposed removal of local government authority over public assemblies, parks or schools; and doesn’t state its “primary purpose” to eliminate local governments’ authority to require criminal background checks on firearms sales.

Fox’s response, on behalf of his office and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, argued that the ballot statement “plainly and correctly states how LR-130 changes a local government’s authority” and that school districts aren’t “local government units.”

An amicus brief filed on behalf of legislators argued that the referendum doesn’t alter school boards’ statutory authority to regulate firearms and accurately reflects its intent. It says the interpretation of the referendum’s “primary purpose” as eliminating local authority over background checks is “too narrow,” and that the actual purpose is to “totally prohibit all local regulation of firearms.”

The Supreme Court’s August 2019 decision against the petitioners kept the ballot language intact. Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said the court’s denial didn’t provide reasoning one way or another, leaving petitioners’ concerns over clarity unaddressed.

“I wish they would have said, ‘No worries, the way this is written, schools won’t be affected,’” Melton said. “But they didn’t.”

Melton said the inclusion of “other local government units” in the referendum’s language can only be referring to school districts.

“What other local government unit is there that’s not a city or county?” he said. “The only answer I can give you after studying this for over 30 years is it’s a school board.”

Fox and LR-130 proponents argue that school boards’ regulatory authority will be unaffected because it’s determined in a different section of Montana code. Melton said the law they’re referencing establishes penalties for weapons in school buildings but doesn’t address boards’ broader authority to regulate firearms, including at sporting events and in other campus locations not within physical structures.

“We believe that the bill does affect school boards,” he said.

Melton predicts the measure, if approved, will inevitably lead to litigation.

“I’m an attorney, and trust me, this is not crystal clear and well settled,” he said. “It’s waiting for the first challenge when a school district seeks to prohibit someone from bringing a weapon onto school grounds.”

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