Billings legislator’s bill would close loophole in Montana firearms reporting

State Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings

A state senator from Billings submitted a bill draft request on Monday that she said would help keep guns out of the hands of some dangerous people.

Margie MacDonald, a Democrat who represents Senate District 26, said she has asked for a bill that would ensure that the firearm background check system in Montana includes everyone who is prohibited under federal law from buying firearms due to serious mental illness.

It is already illegal under federal law for such persons to buy firearms, MacDonald said, but Montana does not now make involuntary mental commitment information available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, commonly referred to as NICS.

“In light of the growing epidemic of school shootings,” MacDonald said in a press release, “we need to do everything in our power to make our schools and communities safer from gun violence. Most of our neighboring states already report this information in the database that federally licensed dealers must clear before selling a firearm.”

MacDonald said the state needs to update one statute to make sure it is consistent with federal code, as well as to ensure that there will be an appeal process and a way to give gun-ownership rights back to people whose mental health is restored.

MacDonald said the 2013-2014 Law and Justice Interim Committee, which she chaired, held some hearings and investigated the issue, but did not bring a bill forward to the 2015 legislative session.

Asked why, MacDonald said in an interview Monday: “I’m afraid it’s the general reluctance of Montana’s elected officials to appear to be in some way infringing on firearms rights.”

Now, in light of a cascade of high-profile shootings in schools and other public venues, she said, “I’m thinking we might have a much better chance with that.”

MacDonald, who served in the state House from 2009 to 2017, was elected to a four-year term in the Senate in 2016. This is the first time she’s been a holdover lawmaker, giving her the chance to file a bill draft request early, she said, so she wanted to make the most of it.

Asking to have a bill drafted now means it can be debated in this year’s legislative races and can be commented on by members of the public. By the start of the 2019 Legislature, when the bill would be introduced, “I would hope that I would have a broad, bipartisan co-sponsorship,” she said.

One of the people who testified before the Law and Justice Interim Committee was Jennifer Viets, manager of the Criminal Justice Information Network in the state Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation.

According to a handout she gave to the committee, the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” from possessing firearms or ammunition.

That includes people determined by a court, board, commission or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves, or people lacking in the metal capacity to manage their own affairs. It also includes people found incompetent to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of insanity, or those involuntarily committed for treatment to a mental facility.

Viets said the NICS can already access records of Montanans found by a court to be mentally incompetent to stand trial or acquitted or found not guilty by reason of insanity. That information is available through a query of Montana criminal history records, she said.

What Montana does not share with the NICS is involuntary commitment information. Viets said the state Department of Justice reviewed the state law regarding exceptions to the confidentially of mental health records “and did not see an authorized exception for sharing involuntary commitment records with law enforcement and NICS, so this information has not been shared.”

That is the statute that MacDonald’s proposed bill would amend. If authorization to share such information were granted, Viets told in the interim committee, the state could use the same processes now used for court-issued warrants and protection orders.

Viets also told the committee that only basic information — name, date of birth, sex, etc. — would be shared with NICS. The state would not share medical information regarding a person’s condition or treatment.

MacDonald also made available the transcript of testimony delivered to the committee by Sonja Woods, a Miles City woman whose daughter, Catherine Woods, the 2001 valedictorian at Custer County District High School, was shot and killed on Nov. 21, 2008.

Woods told the committee that her daughter’s assailant, Justin Schiller, had bought the handgun from Steadman’s Ace Hardware in Miles City. Shortly before that, she said, he had been involuntarily committed to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

Woods said Schiller, who had an unhealthy fixation on her daughter, was prohibited from buying a gun, but he lied on the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms form. An NICS examiner was contacted about the sale, Woods said, but because the involuntary commitment was not reported to the NICS, the sale went forward.

MacDonald said the committee also heard from the father of a woman who died in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which one heavily armed man killed 32 people and wounded 17 others. The father said the Virginia Legislature moved quickly to close a similar loophole in Virginia state law after the mass shooting.

“That same loophole remains open in Montana,” MacDonald said. “It is time to close it.”