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Effort to strip Missoula’s authority to regulate firearms hits language debate

Posted at 9:14 AM, Aug 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-21 18:32:58-04

A number of Republican lawmakers from across the state are pushing to preserve a ballot statement prepared by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox explaining a contentious referendum heading to voters next year.

But opponents believe the statement fails to inform voters of the full impacts of the measure, known as Legislative Referendum 130 , which would strip a local government’s authority to regulate the carry and possession of firearms under most circumstances.

As proposed, the referendum would prevent local governments from closing loopholes in the federal background check system. It would also strip a city of its ability to prevent “convicted felons, illegal aliens, adjudicated mental incompetents and minors” from possessing a gun.

It would also prevent cities and towns from regulating firearms at public assemblies, parks and schools, though the latter may be open for interpretation and lies at the heart of the debate.

“These opponents are asking the court to alter the attorney general’s ballot statement,” said Quentin Rhoades, a Missoula attorney representing the Republican legislators. “They’re afraid it’s going to pass, and they want to include the idea that this referendum will prevent schools from being able to regulate firearms on their campus.”

The city of Missoula, along with the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana School Boards Association and the Montana League of Cities and Towns, among others, have asked the court to find the ballot statement “legally insufficient” under state law.

They’re fighting the statement on a number of fronts, saying it intentionally excludes key words that “would give the elector serious grounds for reflection.”

Among them, they suggest the statement fails to define school districts as a local government. That’s something they believe voters should consider before stripping a local government of its authority to regulate the wider carry and possession of firearms.

In their petition to the Montana Supreme Court, opponents also argue that the ballot language fails to include key words such as “public assembly,” “park” or “school.” Under the measure, local governments would be stripped of their authority to regulate firearms in such locations.

“The (referendum) strikes and removes an affected local government’s specific authority to regulate any carrying of weapons at a ‘public assembly,’ ‘park’ or ‘school,’ ” opponents wrote in their brief. “Astoundingly, the words “public assembly,” “park” and “school” … do not appear in the (referendum’s) ballot statement.”

Opponents also believe the statement fails to be “true and impartial,” since it doesn’t note the referendum’s primary goal of preventing a local government from requiring background checks on all gun sales.

The city of Missoula acted four years ago to close the so-called “loophole” in federal law by enacting an ordinance requiring background checks on all gun sales and transfers within city limits. A District Court judge upheld the city’s ordinance, though Fox is now challenging it before the state Supreme Court.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association has referred to the referendum as the “fix Missoula bill,” something Fox’s ballot statement fails to mention, opponents argue.

“Not a word of this explicit intent, nor (the referendum’s) attempt to repeal statutory language relied upon by the District Court in upholding Missoula’s background check ordinance, is mentioned in the ballot statement,” opponents contend. “Without it, the statement of purpose is neither ‘true’ nor ‘impartial,’ and a voter is prevented ‘from casting an intelligent and informed ballot.’ ”

In their own brief filed before the state Supreme Court, the 50 legislators contend that the ballot statement prepared by Fox is adequate. They’re fighting to keep key words, such as school districts, public assemblies, parks and schools, off the statement.

If the court deems it otherwise, “the Montana legislators wish to suggest their own alternative language.”

“Their position is that the attorney general’s description is sufficient, it complies with the statute and serves as a fair representation of the plain language of the referendum,” Rhoades said. “They think if (schools) are on the ballot description, it will be less popular.”

Rhodes said state law allowing trustees to regulate firearms on their campuses falls under a different state statute. As a result, he said, the language additions sought by opponents doesn’t apply.

“This ballot measure does not affect that state statute that gives the trustees those rights,” said Rhoades. “That’s the politically hot part of the fight. If the ballot statement says this repeals the ability of schools to regulate guns on their campuses, it’s going to be a lot easier to beat than if it doesn’t.”

-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current