Gun-law reformers praise Missoula’s challenge to attorney general’s legal opinion

Advocates for reforming gun laws march through downtown Missoula in 2016 to support the City Council’s effort to enact the state’s first ordinance requiring background checks for gun sales. (Missoula Current file photo)

Gun safety advocates hailed the city of Missoula’s decision to challenge a legal opinion by the Montana attorney general that ultimately voided a city ordinance closing the loophole in background checks for gun sales.

The Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America advocated for the Missoula ordinance during a yearlong public hearing process that began in 2015, and it praised the city’s decision to challenge the attorney general’s decision in court.

“Missoula’s leaders know we don’t have to choose between supporting the rights of law-abiding gun owners and closing dangerous gaps in our gun laws, and they have our strong support as they work to prevent gun violence in our great city,” said Pamela Owen, a Missoula resident and volunteer with Moms Demand Action.

The city of Missoula filed its legal challenge in Missoula District Court on Wednesday, arguing that Attorney General Tim Fox issued an “erroneous” legal opinion in 2017 by suggesting that Missoula’s ordinance requiring background checks on gun sales was unenforceable under state law.

Fox contends that the Legislature “clearly prohibited local governments” from exercising any regulatory power over the purchase, sale or transfer of firearms. By enacting the ordinance, the city attempted to circumvent the “clear intent and interpretation” of state law by relying on a narrow exception, Fox argued in his 2017 opinion.

Eric Sell, a spokesperson for the Montana attorney general, said the office would file its response to the city’s legal challenge by the end of the month. He said the office had no further comment at this time.

Boone Karlberg law firm and Everytown for Gun Safety, which has taken the case pro-bono, will represent the city in its challenge.

“Closing the background check loophole is a common-sense gun safety law,” Eric Tirschwell, the litigation director for Everytown, said Thursday. “We welcome the opportunity to help Missoula confirm its authority to act to protect the public safety of its citizens.”

The city is asking the court to issue a declaration that the city can enforce its ordinance. The ordinance “was properly enacted and within the authority of the city of Missoula under Montana law,” the complaint states.

“This is something Moms Demand Action has been working on for years now,” said Everytown spokesperson Adam Sege. “It’s something the organization has been following because of what the (Montana) chapter has done.”