Gary Marbut is getting exactly what he wanted. The Montana Firearms Freedom Act doesn't take effect for another five weeks, but already the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has issued an open letter to all federally licensed Montana gun makers with instructions for how to follow the Montana Firearms Freedom Act. Basically, the ATF says, gun makers should ignore the new state law, which exempts firearms, gun accessories and ammunition made and kept in Montana from federal oversight.
"Because the act conflicts with federal firearms laws and regulations, federal law supercedes the act," says the letter, signed by Carson W. Carroll, assistant director of the ATF.
Marbut, the head of the Missoula-based Montana Shooting Sports Association, expected the ATF's response, yet he's a bit baffled by the wording.
"It's interesting that it's sent only to federally licensed dealers and not the people of Montana," Marbut says. "We've always assumed that federally licensed dealers would not be players in the state-made gun game because they're under the federal thumb."
Ken Bray, the resident ATF agent in charge of Montana, stands by the letter. "We're a federal agency," he says, "and Congress has tasked us with what the federal law says. We'll continue doing that until there's a ruling in court that says otherwise."
Although the Firearm Freedom Act addresses guns, Marbut contends the point of the law is to establish states' rights under the 10th Amendment. When it passed, Marbut told the Indy that he intended to find a state manufacturer willing to test the law, and would then ask the ATF for permission to proceed. He expected a denial from the agency and a legal battle. Now, it appears, he'll get that chance.
After Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed the Montana Firearms Freedom Act into law on April 15, several states have followed suit. On June 3, a similar bill became law in Tennessee. Since then, versions of the Firearms Freedom Act have been introduced in Minnesota, Michigan, South Carolina, Texas, Alaska and Florida. Marbut says legislators in 18 additional states intend to introduce similar bills once their respective legislatures reconvene.