Montana wrestles nation's boldest gun-rights bill


If you have a taste for irony and political dilemmas, this is delicious.

We all know how Western Democratic politicians get more popular by coming out for gun rights. They're packing guns and twirlin' and shootin' … partly because some are gun folks, and mainly because it's good for the image. It differentiates them from effete gun-controllin' Democrats on the ocean coasts. It wards off attacks by zealous Western gun-rights voters.

This 2008 TV ad for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, for instance, shows the Democratic governor blasting clay pigeons with a shotgun -- a modern classic. The governor is a good shot:



Fair to say, the West has a thing for guns. But sometimes the most zealous gun-rights advocates, pushing to throw off all regulations, seem unreasonable to a lot of people -- and that puts Western Democratic politicians on the spot. It's happening now in Montana -- and the way gun-rights campaigns spread, it could happen soon in other states.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association wants the Legislature to pass a bill that has highly controversial provisions. The National Rifle Association also pushes it. The bill -- titled HB 228 -- would make it easier to brandish a gun and easier to blow away someone in Montana, if you feel threatened ("easier" means, cops and prosecutors would have less grounds for questioning your gun behavior). The most controversial provision would make it easier for people to carry concealed guns WITHOUT A PERMIT …

Understand, Montana has no gun-rights crisis. Rather, it already has some of the loosest gun regulations in the country. If you're a Montanan with a clean record, you can easily get a state permit to carry a concealed gun. That's how more than 14,000 Montanans have been able to get a permit -- roughly one of every 50 people above age 17. And with a Montana permit, you can carry a concealed gun pretty much everywhere, other than in government buildings and banks.

And you don't even need a Montana permit to carry a concealed gun in more than 95 percent of the state (outside city limits), or at your place of business, or in your briefcase or purse, or tucked under your car seat or in your car's glove compartment. Basically, you just need a Montana permit to carry a gun concealed by your clothing inside city limits.

The Montana Shooting Association and the NRA want to eliminate that small regulation on concealed guns in Montana. Only two other states are so completely loose -- Vermont and Alaska. That's what I mean in the headline saying Montana has the nation's boldest gun-rights proposal right now.

Montana's cops and prosecutors opposed several provisions in HB 228, especially the nicknamed "Alaska carry" clause (concealed guns in town, no permit necessary), saying that such looseness would be dangerous.

The head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, Gary Marbut, says HB 228 and "Alaska carry" would make Montana a safer place. His group pushed a 1991 law that made it as easy as it is today to get permits for concealed guns, and he says, "It's worked well -- no reported problems. The experiment was successful."

In Marbut's view: Criminals carry concealed guns regardless of regulations, but they hesitate to pull crimes because they know that many Montanans are also carrying concealed guns. And those packing legally have not caused trouble. Now it's time to complete the experiment, by letting almost any Montanan who feels like it carry concealed guns on any given day or night in town.

The surprising politics: Normally, the traditional gun party (Republicans) would back such an uncompromising bill, and the only chance of killing it would be with Democrats. But the gun-rights zealots got the bill through the legislative chamber where Democrats have most of their power -- the Montana House of Representatives. The House is evenly split (50 Democrats and 50 Republicans), so House Democrats can stop any bill they don't like. The House passed HB 228 on Feb. 10 -- with the "Alaska carry" clause -- by a large margin (60-40). The partisan math: 11 Democrats in the House joined 49 Republicans in voting for it.

Some of those 11 Democrats represent rural communities, so that helps explain their 110-percent backing for gun rights. But I suspect that some Democrats were voting FOR GUNS no matter what the terms were, to avoid a backlash. The 11 included Mike Phillips (from a college town, Bozeman), Mike Jopek (from a resort town, Whitefish), two from the Butte area, two from Great Falls, and one from Billings. (The Feb. 10 House vote was a key action, so the full list of those 11 Democrats is at the end of this post.)

And the gun-rights zealots got busy on their computer keyboards, clicking like crazy in one of those statistically worthless online "polls" -- 70 percent of the clickers liked the "Alaska carry" clause.

Then the bill went to the Montana Senate, where Republicans have a numerical advantage. Slam dunk? The key Senate Judiciary Committee considered it on March 30; the committee has seven Republicans and five Democrats, so the expectation would be, such a committee would pass a gun-rights bill intact. Instead, the committee began hashing out some compromises.

In the most key vote (not in any news clip), two Republicans on the committee voted with all five Democrats to strip out the bold "Alaska carry" clause. Those two Republicans were Gary Perry (from the Bozeman area) and John Esp (from Big Timber, a ranching community that includes wealthy part-timers such as Tom Brokaw), according to a committee source.

Then the full Senate passed the amended bill, without "Alaska carry" and without other controversial clauses. But because the bill had amendments, it went back to the House for reconsideration, and on April 3, the House voted overwhelmingly (73-27) to reject the Senate amendments. Thus, in that second round in the House, 23 Democrats voted to keep the original House-passed bill intact, including the "Alaska carry" clause. Their reasons were likely complicated, because there were so many Senate amendments. Note: In that round, Bozeman's Phillips voted in the minority for accepting the Senate amendments (meaning, no "Alaska carry").

Next up, maybe Monday or Tuesday, the bill goes to a conference committee that will consist of four House members and three Senate members. Republicans will have a 4-3 majority in that committee. They'll try to hammer out a version of the bill that both chambers will pass. If both pass it, it'll go to the ace Democratic shotgunner, Gov. Schweitzer.

If a bill on the governor's desk has the "Alaska carry" clause, he would be on the spot -- either sign a law that lets people carry guns concealed by their clothing inside city limits WITHOUT A PERMIT, or veto it, thereby taking a stand AGAINST GUNS.

Whatever you think of gun rights and permits, don't you love the political dilemma?

PS - The Montana Shooting Sports Association pushes another bill to set up a legal battle with the federal government, challenging whether the feds can regulate what kind of guns are made and sold in Montana. That bill has "sailed through" the Legislature and now rests on the governor's desk waiting for his action one way or the other.

UPDATE April 7: The conference committee decided to keep Montana's existing permit system for carrying concealed guns. (It went along with the March 30 action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.) The Shooting Association's Marbut says even so, enough provisions of HB 228 got passed by both chambers, it's still a victory for gun-rights advocates -- making it easier to use a gun against people who act threatening, without being hassled later by cops and prosecutors.

Democrats in the Montana House who voted for HB 228 and the "Alaska carry" clause on February 10:

John Fleming  (Saint Ignatius)
Cynthia Hiner  (Deer Lodge)
Mike Jopek  (Whitefish)
Deborah Kottell  (Great Falls)
Bill McChesney  (Miles City)
Robert Mehlhoff  (Great Falls)
Art Noonan  (Butte)
Pat Noonan  (Ramsay)
Mike Phillips  (Bozeman)
Cheryl Steenson  (Kalispell)
Kendall Van Dyk  (Billings)


About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.