Missoula adopts mandatory background checks for gun sales, transfers


By Martin Kidston

Missoula’s gun lobby and its supporters sought to defeat an ordinance requiring background checks on all firearm sales and transfers within the city limits on Monday night, long before the scheduled hearing on the issue began.

But while opponents and the National Rifle Association mounted a strong opposition, arguing that the ordinance would be both unenforceable and unconstitutional, the Missoula City Council voted 8-4 to approve the new law.

“I hope that by passing this, we raise awareness of what it means to be a responsible gun owner,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “I wish this would come down from the state level. But sometimes we have to stick our neck out, and it’s uncomfortable.”

Monday night’s final hearing, attended by roughly 100 people – including many from outside Missoula – saw equal representation from both sides.

Those in favor of background checks said it was time to stop kicking the can down the road out of fear of legal action. Those against the measure accused city leaders of overreach and infringing on their Second Amendment rights.

One opponent said it would be “pretty fun” if supporters placed a “no guns here” sign outside their homes, then waited to see what happened. Another, Mark McMillan, said the ordinance’s expected lawsuits will bankrupt the city.

“There are two things I can do in the future to actually make a difference,” he said. “I can run for office and, if elected, actually get some compensation for my time and have a vote and voice that matters. Two, I can work and contribute as much in political contributions to the opponents of those here who are using taxpayer money in their quest for a bankrupt utopia of rainbows and unicorns.”

Barry Dutton disagreed, saying it was time to take action against the illegal possession of firearms. Doing nothing, he said, was no longer acceptable. He praised the measure’s sponsors and supporters for having the courage to move the issue forward.

“The NRA has hamstrung our national and state government, so we must address this issue at the local level,” he said. “It’s clear, we have too many guns and too loose a system for sales. We also know that ordinances like this work at reducing gun violence.”

The ordinance, more than a year in the making, comes with various exceptions, including guns traded in wills and trusts, those obtained by citizens with a valid concealed weapons permit, and those seeking a firearm for emergency uses.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg, also maintained his argument that the new law adheres to the Montana Code Annotated, which grants local governments the power to suppress the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents and illegal aliens.

Opponents disagree with that interpretation of state law, though several members of the council pushed forward regardless, saying the city had a moral obligation to act.

“There are never any guarantees in the law, but we do our best to analyze them,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “We clearly have issues in Montana with gun violence. This is a common sense area where I see we can take a small step. This is a safety issue.”

Council members Annelise Hedahl, Julie Armstrong, Michelle Cares and Harlan Wells voted against the measure. John Wilkins initially abstained, though he later changed his vote in support.

Mayor John Engen also supported the ordinance.

“The NRA has been bullying people for a long time, and I decided I wasn’t going to be bullied anymore,” Engen said. “I’m done being politically expedient on this issue. I’m not going to avoid engaging in what I think is common sense on behalf of the people I believe in at the risk of losing my job.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com