Gun-Rights Group Takes Aim at Montana Laws
BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) - A Virginia gun-rights group aims to block Montana from forcing it to register as a political committee under the state's campaign-finance laws.
The National Association for Gun Rights sued state officials in federal court in Helena, challenging the state's definition and regulation of political committees as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and association.
The laws require "every entity that engages in even a de minimus amount of protected political speech to register as a 'political committee' and meet the onerous burdens imposed upon such committees," the association claims.
Defendants are state Attorney General Steve Bullock, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, and James Murry, the state's commissioner of political practices.
The group says it wants to spend a fraction of its $5 million annual budget on postcards aimed at exposing the voting records of candidates who falsely claim to champion gun rights.
"Many candidates for public office, particularly in states with large numbers of rural voters, inaccurately claim to strongly support the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms as well as to engage in lawful self-defense," the lawsuit states.
Specifically, the association "intends to mail postcards to Montana voters describing the failures of Steve Bullock, currently a gubernatorial candidate, to support the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms and engage in lawful self-defense," the lawsuit states.
But the group says it's "concerned" that the postcards will trigger enforcement of Montana's political committee laws, particularly after Murry forced another nonprofit to register as a political committee for mailing similar postcards.
"[T]he state has prosecuted, and is currently prosecuting, other similarly situated nonprofit corporations for engaging in speech that is materially indistinguishable from the political speech the association intends to make," the group claims (emphasis in original).
The other group, the Western Tradition Partnership and Coalition for Energy and the Environment, is challenging Murry's decision in state court.
The gun-rights association says any advocacy expressed by the postcards will be minimal, as it plans to spend just $20,000 on them - a mere 0.4 percent of its $5 million budget for 2012.
"The association has not engaged in any other acts of 'express advocacy' as defined by the United States Supreme Court," the group claims. "The association has not and will not register as a political committee under Montana's unconstitutional political committee statutes and regulations."
The Virginia nonprofit wants the court to declare the state's political committee laws unconstitutional and bar Montana from forcing it to register as a political committee.
It is represented by Matthew Monforton of Bozeman, Mont.
Bullock's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.