City Council to revisit mandatory background checks in Missoula

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By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A proclamation signed by Missoula Mayor John Engen and read into the public record by City Council president Marilyn Marler on Monday night recognized June 2 as National Gun Violence Awareness Day.

It also unearthed a proposed city ordinance that would implement mandatory background checks for all gun sales and transfers within the city limits. While the council tabled the measure last fall as the municipal elections approached, sponsors intend to bring it back to committee in the months ahead.

“I’m definitely planning to bring it back,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “I’m working on the logistics of that right now. As I’ve said on a few occasions, this or any legislation is an opportunity for the community to have a discussion.”

The proposed legislation first surfaced in the City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee last summer where it quickly became controversial, with both supporters and opponents weighing in.

After several committee meetings and a marathon public hearing, sponsors amended the proposal at the request of critics to include an exemption for transferees younger than 18-years-old, and for those who already posses a valid concealed weapons permit in the state of Montana.

They also restated Montana Code Annotated and the powers granted to local governments by the Legislature to “prevent and suppress the possession of firearms” by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents and illegal aliens.

Von Lossberg, who recently submitted to a background check during a gun transaction, said the hearing process helped improve the ordinance, and he expects the revisions to continue as the effort picks back up.

“We learned a lot, and that’s part of the value of having public hearings,” he said. “Understanding in greater detail the process of going through a background check in a private transaction, and the ATF procedures that outline that – there’s still a bit of misinterpretation and misunderstanding about that process.”

Monday night’s proclamation notes that gun violence kills 91 Americans each day. Citizens of the U.S. are 25 times more likely to be murdered with a firearm that people living in other developed countries.

The proclamation, like the proposed ordinance, also notes that support for the Second Amendment goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns away from felons to protect public safety. It names June 2 as National Gun Violence Awareness Day and invites supporters to wear orange to raise awareness.

“Gun violence effects everyone all over the country, including Missoula,” said Heidi Kendall, a member of the Missoula chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “We’re still strongly supportive of the background-check ordinance in the city, and we look forward to making progress on it.”

After the local ordinance was introduced last year, the state’s top elected Republicans rallied to defeat it. Attorney General Tim Fox questioned the proposal’s legality while both U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke urged the city to withdraw the ordinance.

The ordinance passed out of committee on a 10-2 vote but was later tabled due to the council’s workload and the approaching municipal elections. Several council members elected last November ran on a platform supporting background checks.

“There’s still an appetite for it,” said Marler.

The ordinance, sponsored by council members von Lossberg, Marler and Emily Bentley, would require a criminal background check on all gun sales and transfers, with exceptions granted for family trading, hunting and emergency self defense.

Kendall and other advocates of the measure said they’ll continue their public work to reduce gun violence, but won’t interfere with city ordinance.

“We’ve been focusing our efforts on getting the word out to people and emphasizing that background checks are overwhelmingly supported nationally and in Missoula County, even among gun owners,” said Kendall. “We support background checks in whatever way the city and mayor best feel they can be implemented. We’re deferring to their expertise and reliance on experts for the details.”