Montana Supreme Court Deals Gun Control Advocates A Legal Defeat

Gun control groups hoping to pass more local gun control laws in Montana were dealt a setback by the state Supreme Court this week when their challenge to the language of a ballot referendum was rejected by the state’s high court.

An effort by several organizations to modify the language of the referendum to prohibit local municipalities to make their own gun registration laws was turned away on Tuesday by the Montana Supreme Court.

Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades represented several legislators who opposed the change of language for the referendum.

“The Supreme Court denied the petition to change the Attorney General’s statement describing what the referendum would do if it were passed,” said Rhoades. “The court turned back the analysis that said the Attorney General should have referred to schools and their ability to regulate firearms in that ballot statement. The proponents said that schools needed to be included in that ballot statement.”

In essence, the issue in Montana dates back to 2016, when the city council in Missoula passed a local ordinance requiring background checks on all private sales in the city. While Montana does have a firearms preemption law that prevents municipalities from enacting their own local gun laws, a judge last year upheld the ordinance, ruling that the city has the authority to prevent sales to felons and other prohibited persons, even if state law prevents municipalities from “regulating the sale or transfer” of firearms.

Opponents of the effort to weaken the state’s firearms preemption law have now taken the fight to the ballot box. Next year, voters in Montana will have a chance to vote on LR-130 and strengthen the state’s firearms pre-emption law. Gun control groups sought to change the language of the referendum by claiming that it was misleading to voters.

They’re fighting the statement on a number of fronts, saying it intentionally excludes key words that “would give the elector serious grounds for reflection.”

Among them, they suggest the statement fails to define school districts as a local government. That’s something they believe voters should consider before stripping a local government of its authority to regulate the wider carry and possession of firearms.

In their petition to the Montana Supreme Court, opponents also argue that the ballot language fails to include key words such as “public assembly,” “park” or “school.” Under the measure, local governments would be stripped of their authority to regulate firearms in such locations.

“The (referendum) strikes and removes an affected local government’s specific authority to regulate any carrying of weapons at a ‘public assembly,’ ‘park’ or ‘school,’ ” opponents wrote in their brief. “Astoundingly, the words “public assembly,” “park” and “school” … do not appear in the (referendum’s) ballot statement.”

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled against the gun control groups, the language of the referendum appears to be settled. The fight over the referendum itself is just beginning, however. Gun control groups are challenging pre-emption laws around the country, and they’ll be spending millions of dollars in the state next year hoping to turn back the effort to strengthen the law in Montana.

Jun 27, 2022 11:30 AM ET