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Missoula Gun Background Check Ordinance Violates State Law, Supreme Court Says

Pistol stock photo.
Pistol stock photo.

The Montana Supreme Court today ruled that a Missoula ordinance that would have expanded background checks to private gun sales violates state law. The opinion overturns a lower court’s ruling, and sides with Attorney General Tim Fox's position. 

The state high court’s opinion is the latest step in the fight over a 2016 Missoula ordinance that never went into effect that would have required background checks on gun purchases from unlicensed sellers. According to the Associated Press, it was the only rule of it’s kind in the state.

Months after the city passed the ordinance Attorney General Fox ordered it was prohibited by state law.

In the Montana Supreme Court opinion released Tuesday, Justice Jim Rice agreed, writing that Missoula and the order from the District Court in Missoula County failed to account for the state’s full regulatory power over firearms.

The opinion says that state law specifically restricts local government's regulation of guns on this issue and that “is a limitation on Missoula’s self-governing powers.”

In a written statement Fox said he was confident the Supreme Court would uphold his office’s position, writing, “Missoula’s ordinance is unenforceable. The rule of law and Montana’s constitution matter.” 

Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, the ordinance's original sponsor, says he respects the court's decision, but adds it's deeply disappointing.

"Missoula, like the rest of Montana has real issues with suicide and domestic partner violence and homicides, and the background check is a proven tool to help on those fronts. It's disappointing that we won't have the opportunity to employ that in our community," von Lossberg says.

von Lossberg says he hopes the debate surrounding the issue at least raised awareness that a voluntary background check system is already available for private firearms transfers.

"One takeaway is that more people will be aware that that's a tool they can use for private transfers, regardless of it being required or not by ordinance, and that more folks will use that system," von Lossberg says.

When asked by Montana Public Radio if Tuesday's ruling spelled the ordinance’s end, he replied the Legislature could pick up the baton. He also acknowledged that would be extremely unlikely.

Republicans control both legislative chambers in a state widely considered to have some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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