City Council clarifies ban on firearms in Missoula parks, polling places, public buildings

Councilwoman Julie Merritt sponsored the amendments clarifying Missoula’s gun ordinance. (Missoula Current file photo)

City Council members amended Missoula’s gun ordinance Monday night to make it clear that firearms are prohibited in all polling places and in developed city parks.

The 8-3 vote came after hours of public testimony – mostly by holders of concealed carry permits who said they don’t feel safe going to the park or other public venues without a means of self-defense.

They found agreement only with council members Michelle Cares, Julie Armstrong and Jesse Ramos, all of whom voted no on the amendments.

The ordinance also prohibits firearms – concealed or unconcealed – in Missoula City Council chambers or other buildings where the council might meet, public museums, public schools and the Missoula Public Library.

The prohibitions have all largely been in place for decades, but weren’t codified.

The push for clarification came from the Missoula County Attorney’s Office after election officials had to move several polling places out of school buildings for the Nov. 6 general election because of construction at the schools.

Election administrators were worried that voters might think they could bring weapons to the non-school polling places, and the county attorney wanted clarity for law enforcement officers.

The same was true for Missoula’s Parks and Recreation Department, which for 30 years has prohibited guns in developed city parks as a matter of policy.

Now the policy is law, giving police officers clear authority, said Councilwoman Julie Merritt, who sponsored the amendments. Three members of Moms Demand Action agreed, and thanked council members for taking action to protect Missoula children from gun violence, be it intentional or accidental.

However, Councilwoman Armstrong called the measure “totally unenforceable.”

Who will even know if a person is carrying a concealed weapon in a city park? she asked. “I know there are people who will continue to carry guns when they go to the park.”

Indeed, a number of concealed weapon permit holders who testified Monday night said they simply will not go to the park without a gun.

Candy Ballinger, a resident of Ward 5, said she’s a single mother and native Montanan who needs a firearm to protect herself and her children.

“This infringes on our rights,” she said. “Sadly, it’s the lawful people that this ordinance works against, not the criminals.”

Ballinger urged the council to focus on “matters more important to this community,” including “suicide prevention, drunk driving and the drug problems that we have in this city – far more pressing problems that people have to deal with.”

“We’re trying to solve a problem that’s not a problem right now,” she said.

Several other women also came forward saying they carry concealed weapons to defend themselves, their children and grandchildren

“I have grandchildren who I would be afraid to be at a park not knowing that there was somebody there would could come to their aid immediately,” one woman said. “I’m sorry, but our police are spread way too thin as it is.

“And what’s going to happen if somebody goes crazy and pulls a knife out in one of these parks, and nobody there has a gun who is able to protect themselves or anyone else?”

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong offered several amendments intended to loosen the gun regulations. (Missoula Current file photo)

Armstrong successfully offered a “friendly amendment” to strike a paragraph barring firearms at vaguely defined “public assemblies,” which one audience member complained could include backyard barbecues.

But Armstrong could not convince enough of her fellow council members to support another amendment that would have exempted holders of concealed carry permits in good standing from the prohibitions.

“I feel strongly that this is the group we want to support,” Armstrong said. “We want to have them on our side.”

Ramos followed with an amendment to remove the prohibition on concealed carry in city parks. He, too, could muster only his own vote, along with Armstrong and Cares.

Eight council members, however, were adamant in their support for a gun prohibition in local parks.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones said she raised three children and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in city parks over those years – and never felt unsafe without a firearm.

“I don’t think any type of gun should be in our public parks,” Jones said.

As they prepared to vote on the full list of amendments, Councilman John DiBari emphasized that the vote “was not a referendum on open or concealed carry.”

“We are addressing this at the request of the County Attorney’s Office to establish clarity around firearms at polling places and to codify the city parks policy which is already in place,” he said.

“What we have here is an ordinance very limited in its scope,” added Councilwoman Heather Harp.

The ordinance does not apply to these Missoula trails: Kim Williams, Milwaukee, Ron’s River, Bitterroot and South Reserve Pedestrian Crossing, Northside Greenway and Pedestrian Crossing, and Grant Creek.

Nor does it apply to city open space conservation lands, to law enforcement officers (including those who are off-duty), to anyone displaying or purchasing guns at trade shows, or to participants in hunter or gun safety classes sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Paris.

The ordinance – passed as an emergency measure because of the upcoming election, and also as a regular ordinance to ensure long-term continuity – goes into effect immediately.