Missoula City Council approves background check ordinance

Missoula City Council approved an ordinance Monday requiring background checks on private gun sales and transfers.

The 8-4 vote came after a three-hour meeting and more than a year of public outcry over the proposal, which critics say can’t be reliably enforced within the city and does nothing to prevent criminals from buying guns.

“I visited three gun counters in Missoula and in talking with the clerks who would be enforcing this ordinance, all three said they would not do background checks for the city because of time constraints, liability constraints and the fact that they would be responsible in perpetuity for each ATF Form 4473 they processed,” said Dennis Gordon, a city resident, in comments submitted to the council. “I also discovered that the gun counters are not always staffed by clerks who can conduct background checks. If I am going to be thwarted in my attempt to comply with this proposed ordinance, I wonder how easy it would be to simply circumvent it.”

Gordon said he could drive outside of city limits, where the ordinance wouldn’t apply, in under 10 minutes.

“My point is … you need to provide us with a reliable means with which to comply with this ordinance,” he said.

Councilors Bryan von Lossberg, Marilyn Marler and Emily Bentley sponsored the ordinance last fall. At Monday’s meeting, von Lossberg reiterated passing the measure “was the right thing to do” as a responsible gun owner and would prevent suicides and domestic violence involving firearms.

“It’s the smallest inconvenience really considering the consequences of putting guns in dangerous hands,” said Nancy de Pastino, founder of the Montana chapter of Moms Demand Action. “We are not talking about whether or not somebody can possess a gun. We’re not talking about taking anyone’s right away to buy a gun. Nobody is here to debate that tonight.”

The council’s Public Health and Safety Committee approved a second draft of the ordinance earlier this month eliminating a jail penalty for first-time violators. The new language imposes a $500 fine on first-time offenses, while additional violations carry the fine and up to six months of jail time.

The ordinance includes background check exemptions for hunting, emergency self-defense and transfers between families and antique dealers.

The National Rifle Association, among other gun rights groups, have argued the law does nothing to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. The Montana Shooting Sports Foundation even promised a court battle over the ordinance, should it pass.

NRA urged members last week to take action against the ordinance because it violates the state’s preemption law, which bans local governments from enacting firearm regulations over and above state laws.

“It is important for NRA members and Second Amendment supporters from all across Montana to continue to take action by contacting the Missoula City Council to prevent (Michael) Bloomberg from further spreading his New York-style anti-gun agenda in Big Sky Country,” the group wrote in a statement posted to its website.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox likewise warned City Council the ordinance was crossing the line. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.