Hands Off, Feds!: Montana Firearms Freedom Act Seeks to Restrict Federal Gun Laws

Of all the states under the stars and stripes, few offer more good reasons for gun ownership than Montana. A confluence of factors make the Big Sky state as logical a place as any to fill one’s gun cabinet to the brim.

Montana boasts a diverse and plentiful variety of both large and small game, and is widely recognized as a hunter’s paradise – not to mention offering great trout fishing and beautiful scenery, for those who prefer to wet a line or shoot from behind the lens of a camera. As a result, Montana is regularly near the top of the list in resident hunting licenses sold per capita. Montana ranks 48th of 50 in population density, and because the vast majority of the state is rural – with fewer than seven residents per square mile, and with the nearest law enforcement often many miles away – owning a firearm for home defense makes plenty of sense too. Regardless of high per capita gun ownership – or perhaps because of it – Montana also enjoys low crime rates.

As a result, it’s not surprising that – according to surveys – Montana regularly falls into the top three states in per capita gun ownership. Hence, it’s no surprise that several fine firearm manufacturers call the state home, among them Cooper Firearms, KT Ordnance, Serengeti Rifles, and Montana Rifleman. This convergence of factors has led to Montana’s status as one of the more gun-friendly states in the union, but has also significantly raised the stakes for lawmakers who prefer to keep it that way.

Enter the Montana Firearms Freedom Act. In 2009 in a bold and unprecedented move, a handful of Montana lawmakers introduced a bill declaring that firearms manufactured within the state after October 1st of 2009 were exempt from U.S. federal firearms regulations. In order to receive this exemption, these firearms had to remain within Montana, and were required to display a prominent “Made in Montana” stamp. Exempted from this status were fully-automatic weapons, guns that could not be carried and used by one person, and smokeless powder guns with a bore diameter greater than 1.5 inches.

The rationale for the measure, according to lawmakers, included their belief that the Second, Ninth and Tenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed citizens the right to bear arms while simultaneously granting the states (and ergo their citizens) all powers not expressly granted to the federal government. In other words, lawmakers did not believe that the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government the right to regulate firearms within the state of Montana, so long as interstate trade (which the federal government does have power to oversee) was not involved.

On April 15th of 2009, Governor Brian Schweitzer signed the bill into law, sending murmurs through the gun world and initiating and trend in which over a dozen other states followed suit by passing or attempting to pass similar measures.

But predictably, the law did not survive for long without a challenge. In July of 2009, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued an open letter to Montana Federal Firearms Licensees outlining the agency’s stance on the legislation. In the letter, the ATF stated “…because the Act conflicts with Federal firearms laws and regulations, Federal law supersedes the Act, and all provisions of the Gun Control Act and the National Firearms Act, and their corresponding regulations, continue to apply.”

In response, the Montana Shooting Sports Association and the Second Amendment Foundation announced that they would initiate a lawsuit, a promise they subsequently kept by filing on October 1, 2009 – the very day the Montana Firearms Freedom Act was to take effect. Doing so had a dual effect in that the move initiated judicial debate on the validity of the measure while also putting on hold the ability of the federal government to intervene in regulating it.

However, the legal challenge was short-lived, as U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy dismissed the suit on September 9th of 2010, stating a “lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.”

But, as in the case of most lawsuits, the story does not end there. As it appears, there are plenty who believe the case includes an abundance of “subject matter,” including the plaintiffs, who have filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit will make any headway in the appellate court, a body that has historically been criticized for its liberal leanings. What also remains to be seen is whether the plaintiffs – The Second Amendment Foundation and the Montana Shooting Sports Association – harbor the intestinal fortitude to litigate the case to the highest court in the land; the U.S. Supreme Court.

If they do so, it appears that they will not enjoy the legal or financial backing of the National Rifle Association, who essentially stated their desire to avoid participation in the case. In the February 2010 issue of GUNS Magazine, NRA member David Lundeen stated that Firearms Freedom Act “supporters have never planned to test these laws in criminal cases, and no one who puts himself in that situation should expect support from the NRA.” Lundeen went on to state, “[This] litigation faces major obstacles–mainly because the Supreme Court has given Congress a very long leash when it comes to activities that could affect interstate commerce….Because of these issues, the NRA will continue to focus on the other kinds of pro-gun legislation.”

Although it’s unclear whether this represents an official position on the part of the NRA, the organization’s lack of involvement speaks for itself. As a result, the Montana Firearms Freedom Act will face an uphill battle. In fact, the legislation’s last best chance may be in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the balance of power is evenly distributed. But whether the lawsuit has the backing and means to make it that far, especially with the dubious absence of the gun world’s largest political players, remains to be seen.