Partisan politics rule most lawmaking, but when it comes to guns in Montana, all bets are off.
Take, for example, House Bill 366, sponsored by Rep. Roger Koopman, a Bozeman Republican and former National Rifle Association staffer whose far-right credentials are virtually unmatched in the Legislature.
HB 366 purportedly would allow Montana manufacturers of firearms, firearm “accessories” and ammo that sell only to Montanans within the state to be exempted from the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, which declares federal authority over interstate trade.
Although not explicitly, the bill also provides exemptions from 1993’s federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named for James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was shot and sent to a wheelchair by John Hinckley.
If cast into law, Koopman’s “Montana Firearms Freedom Act” appears to mean no criminal background checks for potential buyers, no gun-sale waiting periods to allow passions to cool in potentially violent disputes, no dealer registration requirements, and no federal oversight of the manufacturers as long as their unsold products don’t cross state lines.
In other words: unrestricted guns and ammo for anyone who can make it to the counter. Or if you can’t make it yourself, send your brother, your kid or your favorite ex-con.
Liberals and moderates, of course, pummeled HB 366. No, wait, guess again. It sailed through the House with 24 Democrats, including six from Missoula, joining all but two Republicans in passing it to the Senate Feb. 16.
One reason is that HB 366, advanced by the Missoula-based Montana Shooting Sports Association (MSSA), was sold as an economic development tool that would create jobs through various “mom and pop” gun-production and sales ventures.
But according to MSSA President Gary Marbut, there are only two firearms manufacturers in the state now, and even Marbut doubts they’d be interested in the proposed exemptions.
“There’s not enough market in Montana for them to survive,” Marbut says. “We may or may not open a window for a cottage industry in Montana [with HB 366]. I’d like the marketplace to decide that.”
Rep. Paul Clark, a Trout Creek Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, says the real issue is standing up to the federal government.
“It is about concerns that we have about expanded federal authority since the Patriot Act,” he says. “This is really all about making a statement. We’re definitely pushing the envelope.”
Marbut says it’s clear to him why liberals and conservatives alike have joined hands to embrace the bill.
“I think the idea makes sense,” he says. “We’re an independent, freedom-loving people in Montana.”
But standing next to every gun bill is the NRA. And fear, not freedom, taints the air on this one.