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Missoula city attorney: Local governments retain ‘limited right’ to regulate guns

City governments still retain “limited ability” to regulate the carrying of weapons in city buildings owned or occupied by the public, the City Attorney’s Office in Missoula concluded in a legal opinion on Thursday.

City Attorney Jim Nugent said the state’s new gun laws, as stated under House Bill 102, don’t prevent a local government from posting “no weapons” signs at government buildings.

Violating the notice remains subject to prosecution for anyone without a valid concealed weapons permit to enter the facility while armed, Nugent said.

But a person with a valid concealed weapons permit is now protected by state law.

“If a local government building is generally posted with notices of no firearms allowed, a person with a valid concealed weapon permit may not be cited for violation of state law or city ordinance merely for being present in the government building with a weapon and a valid concealed weapon permit,” Nugent wrote.

The sweeping gun reforms adopted by the 2021 Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in February have officials across the state scrambling to explore their legal boundaries.

The Montana Board of Regents this week held a listening session on the draft policy to implement new laws allowing open and concealed carry on all Montana college campuses.

The hours-long hearing saw most describe the new law as an “abysmal piece of legislation.” City and county officials in Missoula have expressed similar thoughts regarding guns at public hearings and other government functions.

“A majority of my fellow council members are concerned, and I’m certainly concerned,” Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg said after the legislation was passed. “It has a chilling effect to say the least and it will likely go far beyond that.”

Von Lossberg withheld comment on the city attorney’s legal opinion.

“[We’re] reviewing the opinion and assessing what revisions we need to make to municipal code to comply with state law and ensure citizens are safe participating in local government,” he said.

The new law represents the largest reform of gun laws in the state and it made Montana the 18th state to restore constitutional carry – an ideology dating back to 1791 and the ratification of the Second Amendment, when permits were not needed to carry firearms.

The new law allows concealed firearm possession without a permit in most places in the state, with exceptions including secure law enforcement facilities, federal buildings, courtrooms and schools.

But Nugent believes it also pertains to public buildings. 

“Montana state law does still allow limited ability for city government to prevent and suppress the carrying of weapons at publicly owned and occupied buildings within city jurisdiction, with respect to persons who do not have a valid concealed weapon permit,” he wrote.

Over the past few weeks, city and county officials have discussed the new law and may consider sharing public meeting space in the courthouse, where guns are still prohibited, including concealed carry.

That facility will likely have metal detectors installed.