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Montana's pro-gun lobby takes aim at 2011 Legislature

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The Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA) has taken quite a bite into increased gun laws in anticipation of the 2011 Legislature. Past legislative agendas from the organization have typically focused on a tight four- or five-issue package, but next year's session could see as many as 16 separate issues hit the floor on the pro-gun front. MSSA President Gary Marbut says it's by far the most aggressive push the organization has ever made.

"In March, I went to the [MSSA] Board of Directors with a wish list of 16 items that I thought would be possibles and said, 'Prioritize among these and pick me four or five for the legislative agenda next session,'" Marbut says. "They picked all 16 and said, 'Here, go get them done.'"

Yet Marbut remains uncertain whether the increased hold Republicans gained over both the state House and Senate this year will make the MSSA's agenda any more successful than in previous sessions. It's no mystery that pro-gun laws have garnered more support from conservatives, he says, but the bump in the organization's demands may generate new challenges.

Marbut's assessment isn't shared by Montanans Against Gun Violence (MAGV), a fledgling Missoula-based group that formed late last year. Acting Director Robert McKelvey fears that Republican victories in the 2010 election—coupled with MSSA's successes in the 2009 Legislature and Marbut's growing national clout—will ensure a pro-gun bent in Helena. That will surely work in the MSSA's favor, McKelvey says, and prove troublesome for his own organization.

"Marbut has now made a national presence," McKelvey says, referencing Marbut's work on both the self-defense Castle Doctrine in 2009 and the Montana-made firearms initiative, which provided a model for similar legislative attempts in other states. "He is undoubtedly the most serious, most significant, most influential part of the gun lobby in Montana, exceeding the NRA."

Concerns over the gun lobby have escalated on a national scale going into 2011. Brian Malte, state legislation and politics director for the Brady Campaign, says legislative agendas from groups like the MSSA grow more radical and extreme every year based on the belief that citizens should be able to carry guns "anyplace, anytime, anywhere."

Local gun rights advocate Gary Marbut, above, has an aggressive legislative agenda for 2011. “He is undoubtedly the most serious, most significant, most influential part of the gun lobby in Montana, exceeding the NRA,” says Robert McKelvey, acting director of Montanans Against Gun Violence. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DUANE SPETHMAN
  • Photo courtesy of Duane Spethman
  • Local gun rights advocate Gary Marbut, above, has an aggressive legislative agenda for 2011. “He is undoubtedly the most serious, most significant, most influential part of the gun lobby in Montana, exceeding the NRA,” says Robert McKelvey, acting director of Montanans Against Gun Violence.

"It's not really that the political landscape has changed after the elections, it's the fact that they're now pushing very extreme and radical proposals in these states," Malte says. "To me it's not how much or where, it's what they're pushing."

Most of the issues on the MSSA's latest agenda are what Montana has come to expect from the organization: a stipulation that federal officials obtain written permission from a county sheriff before conducting local arrests, searches or seizures; a prohibition on Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' regulation of lead-based ammunition; and a law allowing out-of-state residents born in Montana to purchase resident hunting licenses. But a number of agenda items raise issues that are extreme enough to generate fierce opposition.

Among Marbut's priorities is a pair of laws addressing the rights of concealed weapon permit holders. The first seeks to legalize the carrying of concealed firearms in cities without a permit in what Marbut refers to as the "next logical step" toward bringing concealed carry to the same legal level as open carry. The MSSA's second proposal would nullify a 20-year-old list of locations including government buildings and banks where concealed weapons are forbidden.

"More kids die from falling into five-gallon buckets of water than the people who are killed by those who misuse concealed weapon permits," Marbut claims. "Compared to the carnage on the highways, it's nothing at all."

Critics of concealed carry have long countered the assertions by pro-gun lobbyists that permit holders are statistically less likely to inflict violence. The Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., compiles an ongoing list of criminal cases involving concealed weapon permit holders that includes detailed accounts of each cited incident. In 2010 alone, the center's data shows, people with concealed firearms were responsible for 69 deaths nationwide both in public shootings and private domestic disputes. For MAGV, the thought of lighter concealed carry regulations is unacceptable, and has prompted McKelvey to submit letters to local media clarifying his group's concerns.

"The larger the fraction of the population who carry concealed guns around, the more people will be afraid not to carry them," McKelvey says. "This is the problem, and it's leading us into a gun-dominant society, which no other advanced democracy has fallen into."

The MSSA also intends to readdress the issue of establishing a Home Guard in Montana under the direct control of the governor. A similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, died in standing committee in the 2009 session after a number of revisions and legal reviews. Marbut believes another attempt in the Legislature may win more favor—the same belief he has regarding the controversial wolf management bill, which features higher on the MSSA's agenda.

"We've done a few improvements on it, but it'll be about 95 percent the same," Marbut says of the wolf bill, originally sponsored in 2009 by Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman. "I think the Legislature is a lot more ready for that, and the people of Montana are a lot more exercised about the wolf problem than they were two years ago."

That try, try again sentiment is the only message from the MSSA McKelvey can agree with. In the interest of passing its first modest piece of legislation—a ban on firearms along parade routes and at public events like farmers' markets—MAGV plans to take a cue from Marbut's tenacity this winter.

"The things he's gotten passed in these last couple of legislatures are things he put in time and again, time and again, and didn't get through, and finally they broke through," McKelvey says. "I think we'll use that same tactic."

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