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Gun fight

Proposed rule targets criminals but could also catch business

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Hayes Otoupalik has run the Missoula Gun Show for 47 years, regularly drawing thousands of enthusiasts to the Adams Center for the state's oldest and largest event of its kind. But if gun control advocates have their way with the Missoula City Council, Otoupalik says the tradition will soon end.

"You're just going to kill the Missoula Gun Show," he says. "It's going to be dead."

Otoupalik can barely contain his frustration as he talks about a proposal before council that would extend instant background checks to all firearms sales within city limits, including at gun shows. He yells into the phone, veering between arguments for why he thinks it's a bad idea.

Rather than keep guns away from criminals, he says, a background check requirement would simply deter law-abiding enthusiasts from his event. Background checks cost up to $25 in fees, plus a few minutes of paperwork, and some customers oppose the federal system on principle. Otoupalik is convinced they'll go elsewhere in Montana instead of submitting to the hassle and expense.

As attempts to expand background checks at the state and federal level have stalled, advocates are turning to local reform to reduce gun violence. But critics say municipal gun control will do more harm than good.

"It's just a way to make life more difficult for gun owners," says Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

America has been at an impasse on background checks since the mass shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. More recent events, such as the one at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, failed to sway Congress to endorse what President Barack Obama called "even the mildest restrictions" on guns. Last week the president stood up to the podium again, after another mass shooting in Roseburg, Ore., and pleaded for change.

Otoupalik's level of exasperation is equaled by local activists with Moms Demand Action, a group formed in Sandy Hook's wake, as they discuss the need for the Missoula ordinance.

"It's just, we have to do something," says Heidi Kendall, a school board trustee who backs the proposal. "Something, anything."

An ordinance before Missoula City Council would require federal background checks for all gun sales within city limits, including those at gun shows. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL GLASGOW
  • photo courtesy of Michael Glasgow
  • An ordinance before Missoula City Council would require federal background checks for all gun sales within city limits, including those at gun shows. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 19.

Background checks may enjoy broad support in public opinion polls, but within the current gun policy landscape, the Missoula ordinance is out on a limb. Over the last few decades, cities have lost their ability to regulate firearms as gun advocates lobbied state legislatures. The Law Center for Preventing Gun Violence, which tracks policy trends, can't point to another example among the 43 states with preemption laws where a city has enacted an ordinance similar to Missoula's. The city's attorney believes Montana law leaves room for municipalities to expand background checks, but Second Amendment defenders are already threatening a bitter legal fight. Attorney General Tim Fox declined comment.

Nancy de Pastino, the Moms Demand Action chapter director, says this issue is worth the trouble. Background checks are proven tools for keeping guns away from criminals, she says, and this ordinance would at least begin to address the problem.

De Pastino adds the ordinance isn't designed to undermine gun shows or "ban" private sales, as conservative news outlets have characterized it. Felons, minors and the mentally ill are already prohibited from buying guns, and background checks simply help ensure they can't do so.

"We know the majority of gun owners are very responsible," de Pastino says. "This is a measure that helps them be responsible. Part of that responsibility is knowing who you're transferring a gun to."

Marbut, who has pledged to sue if council passes the ordinance, opposes all forms of government background checks, calling them ineffective and a ruse to identify and eventually disarm gun owners. He acknowledges that gun sellers have some "moral responsibility" to know their customers, but doesn't see a need for his organization to encourage safe sales practices between gun owners.

Should the ordinance pass, private residents looking to sell their guns would be required to do so through a local dealer authorized to perform the instant background check. Tim Taunt, who owns A Nickels Worth pawn shop, says his store occasionally facilitates online gun sales, which are required to ship through federal dealers, for a $25 fee. He doesn't think the ordinance would lead to a sharp increase in this sort of service.

"I doubt it would affect it very much at all. Most people are going to avoid the issue," he says.

If council does pass the ordinance, its backers hold a broader hope that it could encourage other cities to take action and, eventually, pressure lawmakers to enact broader reform.

"There's part of me that hopes we're waking the sleeping giant with this," Kendall says.

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