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State Supreme Court OKs ballot measure limiting local authority over gun background checks

Montana’s highest court has ruled that the language for an election referendum on locally imposed gun background checks will remain as is. Now, it’s up to voters.

On Tuesday, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that Attorney General Tim Fox’s description of Legislative Referendum 130 will not be changed or removed from the 2020 general election ballot.

LR 130 is a legislative effort to eliminate the authority of local governments to require background checks for those trying to buy guns within their jurisdiction.

The Missoula City Council passed such an ordinance in 2016 and has had to defend its actions against gun advocates and the Republican Party in the courts after Fox issued a 2017 legal opinion that the ordinance violated state law.

When a district court judge overruled him, Fox appealed the judge’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court in November. A ruling in that case is pending.

In the meantime, the 2019 Legislature passed LR 130 after Fox, as attorney general, wrote the verbiage, part of which says LR 130 “generally restricts a county, city, town, consolidated local government, or other local government unit’s authority” to regulate carrying firearms.

Among other things, opponents argue that the term “other local government unit” would mean entities like schools couldn’t limit or ban firearms on their premises or at large public gatherings. So they challenged the wording and asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in.

Fox argued that he wrote the description fairly after soliciting public comment and making various changes. He asserted that some of the opponents’ claims drifted into legal areas that were outside the ballot referendum.

The Supreme Court agreed.

“Our clients are gratified by and grateful for the court’s decision,” said state attorney Quentin Rhoades.

Rhoades represented a group of Republican legislators who filed an amicus brief in the case. Attorney General Tim Fox and Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion represented the state.

The plaintiffs included the city of Missoula, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the Montana School Boards Association, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Human Rights Network and Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.