Business As Usual For Montana Gun Sellers After Obama's Executive Order
President’s Obama’s announcement on January 5 that he would take unilateral action to bolster gun control reverberated around the country. Katie Riordan reports on how the president’s words echoed in Montana, and on efforts for tighter gun control laws in Missoula and statewide.
In his emotional address, the president made clear that private gun sales are in for some changes:
"Until we have a Congress that's in line with a majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence and save more lives."
Those actions include devoting more resources for background checks, as well as stricter oversight for private gun sellers.
"Anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a license and conduct background checks, or be subject to criminal prosecutions."
The president has branded the executive proposal as a life-saving measure.
But here in Montana, with some of the most permissive gun laws in the country and one of the nation’s highest rates of gun ownership, vocal opposition isn’t hard to find.
At a recent three-day gun show in Kalispell, it is business as usual. It was the first of its kind in the state following the president’s announcement. At first glance, the carpeting of tables stacked with antiques and clothes inside the public event space could be mistaken for a local flea market.
Couples stroll hand-in-hand. Some with children. One local school teacher is shopping for a birthday gift for her husband. Of course, there are tables brimming with guns. Lots of guns.
“People don’t want to come in here and have a background check done on them, and be registered with the federal government.”
That’s Ken Bogard, a mild-mannered gun collector who has been setting up shop at gun shows across the country for the past 50 years.
A TV monitor to his right uses blood-pumping music to advertise a product he’s selling.
Bogard says he’s thought a lot about the president’s words; but the retired contractor mostly deals in gun accessories, with the occasional rifle sale. This places him in the gun seller grey area.
The president didn’t define what he meant when he said: "Anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a license and conduct background checks or be subject to criminal prosecutions.”
Are the the couple of rifles Bogard sells each year enough to require him to get federally licensed?
“We don’t know," Bogard says. "We don’t know who is going to be able to enforce this. We don’t know how soon it's going to come into effect. It looks like it’s going to be fast."
Bogard says he wouldn’t mind conducting background checks, but it would most certainly push customers away.
While gun shows typically find themselves at the heart of the tightening gun control debate, Obama’s proposal is intended to clamp down on private sales in general. This includes those done on the Internet. Critics point out that this is harder to enforce.
But if Brian von Lossberg has his way, local legislation could help fill in some of these gaps. Von Lossberg is a Missoula city council member and sponsor of a vanguard gun control ordinance put forward last year.
If passed, his proposal would be the first of its kind in the state. It would specifically and broadly define private gun sellers as anyone who sells a gun to anyone else, outside of sales between family members or by antique collectors.
"It has the prospect to save lives in Missoula, more broadly throughout the state," Von Lossberg says. "The president’s actions don’t create universal or comprehensive background checks on all transactions. This legislation does for the city, and we are going to continue to pursue it."
Von Lossberg calls the plan modest, but Missoula’s proposed ordinance is highly controversial. Elected officials like Attorney General Tim Fox say they would challenge it if passed. And many argue that it would just push gun sales out of city limits.
If the Missoula ordinance passes, what's would keep a buyer from just going to Kalispell to a gun show?
"Absolutely nothing, other than perhaps your desire to demonstrate responsible gun purchasing behavior," says von Lossberg.
Back at the gun show in Kalispell, people were saying the latest local and federal initiatives to change rules for gun sales are pretty inconsequential.
"I don’t think it's gonna make a difference whatsoever. A criminal's gonna get a gun whether they steal it, or whether they're doing paper work," says Robert Dale Smith.
"People have been killing each other for 10,000 years, and if we're around 10,000 years from now, we're still gonna to be killing each other," quips a man named Fred, who declined to give his last name.
"If there's bad intent, they're gonna carry it out, no matter what," Christie Gallady says.
Tracy Sharp and his wife Laura are volunteers with the Ted Cruz campaign. Next to a table decorated with campaign signs, they sit collecting signatures to get Cruz on Montana’s GOP primary ballot. They say the location is an ideal place for them to work, and Obama’s latest executive action pushes people into their arms.
"People almost grab these out of your hand in order to sign them. There’s a general feeling that we get, whether it’s a Trump supporter or any of the other supporters that go by and take time to talk to us, that the federal government is simply out of control."
But gun control advocates hope a growing sense of urgency both locally and federally could prompt Montana to take its own action.
Heidi Kendall is a volunteer with the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
"It will put pressure on the state. I think it’s a marathon not a sprint. I don’t think this is gonna happen in the next legislature, but I think the pressure will influence the legislature over time."
Missoula’s background check legislation will go before the city council again in the coming months. It’s still unclear exactly when President Obama’s executive order will go into effect and exactly how. In the meantime, for private gun sellers and buyers in Montana, it will continue to be business as usual.