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Know the West

Montana's top gun-rights advocate has a national impact


Guns are Gary Marbut’s life. A self-employed, self-sufficient jack-of-all-trades who lives outside of Missoula, Mont., Marbut says that if he didn’t cast his own bullets, he couldn’t afford to shoot as much as he does: 10,000 to 15,000 rounds per year.

He shoots in both rifle and handgun competitions, teaches concealed weapons classes (he's had about 3,500 students), manufactures target equipment, and hunts elk with a .44 Magnum revolver, because it's more challenging: He has to "sneak-creep" to within 50 yards of an elk to take a shot. In 1989, Marbut also founded what is arguably the most assertive state-level gun-rights group, the Montana Sports Shooting Association. He says his gun-rights advocacy is partly about "individual and personal freedom," and he has been the main leader pushing "55 pro-gun, pro-hunting bills" through the Montana Legislature.

During every session of the Montana Legislature, as president of MSSA, Marbut spearheads the group's lobbying effort for pro-gun rights legislation. He has entrenched himself in this kind of gun battle for more than 20 years, and earned national recognition in 2009 by successfully pushing for passage of the Montana Firearms Freedom Act.

That law, which Marbut wrote and was sponsored by Joel Boniek, R-Livingston, and five other state legislators, declares that any firearm made in Montana that is sold within state borders is exempt from federal firearms regulations: Montanans could sell those guns without the federal license for firearms sellers, and buy them without going through federal background checks.

Marbut based the law on his interpretation of a section in the U.S. Constitution called the Interstate Commerce Clause, which enables Congress to regulate commerce passing over state lines. Marbut and some other gun-rights advocates say the Commerce Clause means that Congress can't regulate commerce that occurs only within a state.

Marbut, who grew up on a 5,000-acre cattle ranch outside of Missoula, lived in Alaska for 10 years. There he taught emergency medicine and was an emergency medical coordinator for rural areas outside Fairbanks. His teaching experience "morphed into" his work for gun rights, he says, since that work is also about "how to teach people to enforce their choice not to be victims."

Marbut's idea that states can avoid federal arms regulations has caught on: Legislatures in seven other states, mostly in the West -- Alaska, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, South Dakota and Tennessee -- have followed Montana’s lead by passing their own versions of a Firearms Freedom Act, in effect mounting a fundamental challenge to federal authority. At least 20 other states have tried unsuccessfully to pass similar laws.

But several U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past have held that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate some matters that occur only within a state's boundaries, such as medical marijuana and guns. That's also the position of the federal agency that regulates guns -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- and the U.S. Department of Justice.

It's become a courtroom showdown: Marbut, the MSSA, and several states filed suit against the feds, demanding that the Firearms Freedom Act be carried out. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula dismissed the case in 2010, saying that the Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to regulate firearms, period. Marbut and other plaintiffs took the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is waiting to be argued.

Marbut expects that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will rule against him, but his goal is to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservative justices have a 5-4 advantage; he hopes for a nationwide ruling severely restricting federal authority. He says the National Rifle Association is not part of the lawsuit yet because "the NRA is never too comfortable pushing the edge of the envelope."

Meanwhile, Marbut continued to lobby the Montana Legislature this year. He was involved in presenting 25 bills, one of which sought to allow people in Montana to carry concealed weapons in cities without a concealed-weapons permit. (State law already allows people to carry concealed weapons without a permit outside city limits.) The Republican-controlled Legislature passed that bill, but Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a pro-gun Democrat, thought it went too far and vetoed it.