Katie Fairbanks

(MTFP) Since Missoula’s bus system reluctantly changed its policy in early October to allow passengers to carry guns, a frequent response from riders has been one of concern, according to the transit agency.

On Oct. 3, Mountain Line announced the change after a pro-gun group, the Montana Shooting Sports Association, threatened to sue the agency for breaking the state law by banning them, according to a press release from the Missoula agency.

In the weeks since several passengers have called or emailed the agency worried about their safety, said Olga Kreimer, Mountain Line’s spokesperson.

“There was no public outcry from passengers clamoring to bring weapons on board,” she said in an interview with Montana Free Press. “Honestly, the major response has been from people really concerned about this change, saying they’re going to stop riding the bus because of it. It’s made things worse for people who actually use our system in the sense they feel less safe or aren’t sure about allowing children to take the bus.”

Since it began operating in the 1970s, Mountain Line has prohibited weapons and other dangerous items like car batteries and explosives to keep drivers and passengers safe, Kreimer said. The agency would continue banning guns on buses if it wasn’t in danger of violating the law, she said.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association’s threat of a lawsuit was the impetus for the change, Kreimer said.

“We strongly disagree with the notion that allowing firearms on public transit serves the best interests of the community and the people who regularly use or operate buses,” the Missoula Urban Transportation District board of directors wrote in the statement announcing the change. “The legislation as written did not adequately consider public transit, safety, common sense, and local expertise, and the current law undermines our commitment to ensuring the safety of our employees, passengers, and the community.”

The statement references Legislative Referendum 130, which restricts local governments’ ability to regulate the carrying of concealed weapons. Montana voters approved the measure 51% to 49% in November 2020.

Local governments can still regulate carrying unpermitted concealed weapons or unconcealed weapons in a publicly owned and occupied building, according to the state law. That language allows Mountain Line to keep its ban on all weapons, including firearms, in its buildings, Kreimer said.

Gary Marbut, Montana Shooting Sports Association president, told MTFP he’s been calling on Mountain Line to change its policy since 2016 for what he maintains is a violation of law and the U.S. and state constitutions. Following the passage of LR-130, the association didn’t immediately move forward with a lawsuit because of potential legal costs, he said.

After lawmakers passed House Bill 631 earlier this year, the association planned to sue Mountain Line once the law took effect Oct. 1, Marbut said. The new legislation — which Marbut and the association pushed for — says the government cannot limit residents’ right to bear arms and would require those entities to cover the legal costs of residents who win a legal challenge over gun restriction.

After thorough consideration, Mountain Line staff and the Missoula Urban Transportation District board decided it would not be in the agency’s or passengers’ best interest to “get dragged into a lawsuit right now,” Kreimer said.

However, the board is “actively investigating avenues to push back against this requirement and fully intends to do so,” according to the statement earlier this month. Kreimer declined to elaborate on the agency’s next steps.

Meanwhile, the shooting association is looking into pushing a similar change in Bozeman and Billings, Marbut said.

Bozeman’s Streamline Bus prohibits weapons, including firearms, according to its website. Billings MET Transit does not ban weapons on buses but asks passengers to refrain from bringing them on board to promote safety, Transit Manager Rusty Logan said in an email.

While MET Transit is a subdivision of the local government, the situation in Bozeman is “muddier” because the Streamline Bus is operated by a nonprofit, Marbut said.

HRDC, the nonprofit that runs Streamline, is aware of the change in Missoula and is looking into how it may affect the organization, said Penny Johnson, the group’s communications manager.

The policies listed online for the Helena, Great Falls and Flathead County transit agencies don’t specifically mention weapons.

Mountain Line’s updated policy states: “No unlawful weapons shall be brought aboard MUTD vehicles. In cases where the law allows the possession of weapons, individuals may not display or handle these weapons in a manner that could reasonably cause fear or alarm among other individuals or District employees.”

When asked if he heard from Missoula residents prevented from carrying their guns on the bus, Marbut said people who possess firearms for self-defense are typically “clandestine” about it. In a public place like the grocery store, some people are “almost certainly” carrying guns, Marbut said. The same is likely true on the bus, but it’s such a “non-issue” that no one knows, he said.

Marbut dismissed safety concerns from passengers who’ve reached out to Mountain Line since the policy change.

“People have other irrational fears, like a fear of guns,” he said. “Dealing with that is a job for mental health professionals and not for me.”

Those who carry firearms for self-defense should seek training, Marbut said. Since lawmakers approved permitless concealed carry in 2021, training previously required with that permit is now optional.

So far, Mountain Line hasn’t received any reports of guns on buses, Kreimer said.

“We’ve been really clear we are not happy about this change, don’t think it’s a good idea, doing this because we are being forced to,” she said. “The reality is peoples’ day-to-day experience is not really expected to change, doesn’t appear to have changed since the policy was altered.”

Mountain Line’s policies still ban disruptive or threatening behavior, and the agency has clear safety procedures, Kreimer said.

“We’re hoping people who are changing their behavior because of this and not feeling they can ride the bus, we want them to know the experience of being on the bus has not really changed,” she said. “We hope they feel like it’s a resource they can access and [others carrying firearms is] not something they are expecting on every bus ride just because it’s allowed.”