Legislature sees surge in firearm bills
HELENA — Montana’s legislature has seen a litany of gun-related bills this session in what one representative referred to as “concern with the federal government’s apparent stance on the Second Amendment.”
Supporters say these bills represent a much-needed check on the federal government. Opponents say they are unnecessary and, if passed, will lead to tension and strained relations with federal representatives and cooperative law enforcement efforts between state, local and federal agencies.
The bills are wide-ranging and seem to encompass anything and everything gun-related.
House Bill 303
Introduced by Rep. Krayton Kerns, HB 303 is also known as the “Sheriffs First” bill. If enacted, the bill would force federal agents to get a sheriff’s permission before making arrests or serving warrants within that sheriff’s jurisdiction. If they do not, these federal agents would risk local kidnapping and trespassing charges.
If passed by both houses, the measure would go directly to voters in 2014, bypassing a potential veto from Governor Steve Bullock.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that we get these passed,” Kerns said. “These are scary times. We have a federal government that is violating an expressed prohibition of the Second Amendment. It is our responsibility as legislators to call it into question. If we don’t, who will?”
Kerns has carried the majority of gun-related bills this legislative session.
“I know there’s a lot of people who believe the federal government doesn’t pose any sort of threat to their freedom, but certainly our Founding Fathers did. That’s why they designed the Constitution to limit the federal government to enumerated and specific power,” Kerns said, citing the Constitution, specifically the 10th Amendment, and the Bill of Rights. “The whole purpose of the three founding documents was to limit the scope of the federal government. If we are going to ignore one, on what basis do we accept the rest?”
HB 303’s abstract reads, “An act regulating arrests, searches and seizures by federal employees; requiring federal employees to obtain the county sheriff’s permission to arrest, search and seize; providing exceptions; providing for prosecution of federal employees for violations; rejecting federal laws purporting to give federal employees the authority of a county sheriff in this state; providing that the proposed act be submitted to the qualified electors of Montana, and providing an immediate effective date.”
Or, as Kerns put it, “The duly-elected county sheriff is the supreme law officer in the county. Therefore, for the federal government to serve a warrant or conduct a seizure of property, they have to have the consent of the county sheriff. I think passing a bill like that represents a barrier — a barrier to unconstitutional activity.”
Opponents have said the measure goes a step too far, attempting to bypass federal law in a move they say is unconstitutional. Some sheriffs have actually opposed the bill, saying it puts them in a difficult position and has the potential to disrupt cooperative law enforcement efforts spanning local, state and federal jurisdictions.
House Bill 215
Sponsored by Edward Greef, Chuck Hunter, Rae Peppers and Gordon Vance, HB 215 would designate the Winchester Model 1873 (produced between 1873 and 1919) as Montana’s official state historical rifle.
House Bill 292
HB 292 would require pawn brokers and pawn shops to notify law enforcement when a firearm is being purchased or pawned. Law enforcement would then have 10 minutes to conduct a search of the FBI-maintained National Crime Information Center Database to determine if the weapon was stolen, and notify the pawn broker whether or not he could purchase the weapon.
“This was a constituent bill,” said bill sponsor and House District 7 Rep. Randy Brodehl. “It was specific to a need to close a bit of a hole in the way guns are purchased.”
As an example of how the bill would help, Brodehl described a robbery in which a hunting rifle is stolen from the legal owner. The owner files a police report with his local law enforcement agency. While the owner is filing the report, the thief sells the gun to a pawn shop.
“Law enforcement in the State of Montana varies on checking the status of stolen guns,” Brodehl said. “There is no requirement that specifies when (law enforcement) has to check pawn shops for stolen guns. It can be a week, or it can be a month. So now, the gun owner goes into the pawn shops looking for his gun, because that’s the only thing he knows to do, and sees it up on the wall.”
That’s where it gets interesting. Brodehl said that if the serial number of the gun matches the serial number filed in the police report (i.e. the rightful owner proves it is his gun), state law dictates that law enforcement can neither confiscate the gun nor return it to the rightful owner. Instead, the pawn shop is required to hold the gun for 30 days before the rightful owner can retake possession of his firearm.
“So, at the end of the day, the pawn shop owner is out the money he paid for the gun; the rightful owner is without his gun for 30 days; if it’s hunting season, he doesn’t get to hunt with his gun and fill his tag; and the bad guy has his money and (is gone),” he explained.
Brodehl believes the bill would close a lucrative criminal loophole in the system and protect pawn shops, legal gun owners and law enforcement. But, the bill is tabled in committee and Brodehl is not sure if it will come out.
“At this point, (the committee has) chosen to not bring it out for executive action to vote on it. As of next week, if it doesn’t make transmittal, it’s a dead bill,” he said.
House Bill 384
Sponsored by Rep. Jerry O’Neil, HB 384 is “an act clarifying procedures for suspension and expulsion of students for violations related to firearms; clarifying the definitions of “school” and “firearm;” providing that a firearm locked in a vehicle on school property does not constitute possession of a firearm at school; protecting the integrity of student records; (and) requiring the office of public instruction to make public certain information.”
As O’Neil put it, “I want the students in Montana to have more opportunities to participate in marksmanship classes, so they can bring their guns to school and have them locked up.”
O’Neil recounted the story of Demari DeReu, a 16-year-old honor student, class treasurer and varsity cheerleader at Columbia Falls High School. In December 2010, DeReu was suspended for having an unloaded hunting rifle in the trunk of her car. After a school announcement stated police dogs would be going through the parking lot looking for contraband, DeReu remembered she’d left her hunting rifle — last used during a family hunting expedition over Thanksgiving break — locked in the trunk of her car. She immediately told administrators about the rifle and was suspended for violating state and federal law.
“I would probably support (a bill regarding) concealed carry on campus,” O’Neil said. “I think the legislators, at least the representative legislators, are very concerned with the federal government’s apparent stance on the Second Amendment. I feel very strongly on the right to keep and bear arms.”
As for the importance of Second Amendment freedoms, O’Neil pointed across the border to Mexico.
According to Propuesta Civica, or Civic Proposal, a human rights advocacy group, more than 20,000 Mexican citizens have gone missing in the past six years as a result of ongoing drug and gang wars and kidnappings. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission says nearly 16,000 bodies have been found in the same time period — none have been identified.
“Mexico has very strong anti-gun laws,’ O’Neil said. “If you have a .22 shell, you go to prison. I don’t want Montana or the United States to come to that, to come to a point where the government or drug cartels can come kidnap someone.”
O’Neil believes that if Mexicans had the same gun rights as Americans, “(drug cartels and kidnappers) might get a few people, but every once in a while, they’re going to find somebody who resists. It’s much easier to resist when you have a gun.”
House Bill 459
Of the 23 executive actions signed by President Obama following the December 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, several deal with the healthcare system, allowing doctors to ask patients questions regarding firearm ownership and use. House Bill 459 allows a patient to refuse to answer the question and prohibits doctors from withholding care from patients refusing to answer.
Sponsored by Kerns, he said the measure is a necessity.
“(If you are denied care,) you will have no choice,” he said. “You will surrender firearms in exchange for healthcare and some people don’t see it coming.”
House Bill 302
After passing a third reading on the House floor Feb. 22, HB 302 is headed to the Senate. If passed, it would prohibit state employees and resources in enforcing any federal ban on semiautomatic weapons and large magazines while providing an immediate effective date. Several other state legislatures are considering similar measures.
House Bill 27
HB 27, if passed, would allow big game hunters to use suppressors for certain large predators. The bill, introduced by Rep. Ted Washburn, has been brought up in past legislative session but never gathered enough backing to make it out of the first reading.
“Suppressors while big game hunting: why are they needed? The best thing to equate it to is like a muffler for your pickup. Why do you really need one?” asked Kerns.
While this bill is in committee, Kerns said it has the potential to become a law this year, largely because of testimony by Townsend outfitter Kelly Flynn.
Flynn runs Hidden Hollow Hideaway Ranch in Townsend and has been a staunch opponent of the bill every time it has come up — until this year.
“The thing that allowed this bill to pass the through house was Kelly Flynn,” Kerns said. “He’s always been an opponent of the bill because he wants to be able to hear if someone is on his property shooting elk.”
This year, several proponents of the bill offered to take Flynn out shooting with suppressors before the legislative session.
“He was amazed at how misinformed he was to reality,” Kerns said. “He rose on the House floor and spoke in strong support of the bill and the bill passed, principally because of him.”
House Bill 358
Sponsored by Kerns and 19 other legislators, HB 358 revises concealed-carry laws in Montana. While the process to obtain a concealed-carry permit remains the same, the bill allows anyone who would qualify for a permit under current guidelines to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, something already allowed outside of city limits.
“I don’t believe concealed-carry is a crime,” Kerns said. “The one bill that I have extends concealed-carry, and when you look at it logically, it makes sense.”
Presently, Montana allows open-carry throughout the state, i.e. an individual wearing a firearm in public where most can see it.
“You can also put your firearm in a backpack or purse, and that’s not concealed carry. You just can’t put it in a holster and cover it with your coat. To make that leap that somehow (covering a firearm with a coat) is a crime is a stretch of logic,” Kerns explained.
Similar bills have been introduced to the legislature in years past, but few have made it past the drawing board. This year, amid fears of a federal crackdown on firearms and gun owners, the measures seem to be getting more attention.
While most credit the attention these firearm-related bills are getting to the Sandy Hook shooting, proposed federal legislation and ensuing gun-and-ammunition-buying panic, Kerns believes the number of gun bills in Montana’s legislation is about the same as it has always been. The difference this year is each bill introduced individually rather than in a package, allowing the measures to pass or fail on their own merits.
Several of these bills are on their fourth trip through the legislature. Some were reworked and reintroduced after previous vetoes, but nevertheless, “this all started well in advance (of Sandy Hook),” Kerns noted.