Montana Supreme Court Strikes Down Missoula Gun Ordinance

Handguns are displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

(CN) – The Montana Supreme Court Tuesday struck down a city’s attempt to perform background checks on people purchasing or transferring guns within its city limits.

The City of Missoula, Montana, enacted an ordinance in 2016 requiring people purchasing or receiving a firearm to pass a national background check.

Three months after the ordinance was enacted, Montana Attorney General Tim Fox issued an opinion that said cities with self-governmental powers, such as Missoula, are prohibited by Montana law from enforcing a regulation or ordinance requiring background checks on firearm sales or transfers. 

The city then sought declaratory judgment from a state district court on Fox’s directive. The lower court ruled that the gun ordinance was authorized under state law, which authorizes cities to “prevent and suppress … the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors.”

Fox appealed that ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.

Montana Supreme Court Judge Jim Rice, writing the majority opinion for the court, said Missoula incorrectly parsed the state law that prohibits cities from restricting gun sales, while also prohibiting sales of guns to convicted felons, minors or “mental incompetents.”

The judge said the ordinance is based upon the wording of the statute that grants cities the power to prevent convicted felons and others from possessing firearms. 

“However, the Ordinance, as well as the City’s arguments and the District Court’s order, fail to account for the remaining language and thus fails to properly apply the standards of statutory interpretation,” Rice wrote. 

The Supreme Court voted unanimously to overturn the lower court’s ruling. Concurring with Rice were Justices Mike McGrath, Dirk Sandefur, Laurie McKinnon and James Jeremiah Shea.

Fox said Tuesday that the 5-0 ruling validated what he had told Missoula in 2016. 

“I told Missoula that under Montana law it lacked the authority to restrict the sale or transfer of firearms,” Fox said in a statement. “Missoula’s ordinance is unenforceable. The rule of law and Montana’s Constitution matter.”

Missoula is represented by city attorney James Nugent; Boone Karlberg attorney Scott Stearns; and the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Under Missoula’s ordinance, anyone violating the law would have been guilty of a misdemeanor, but no charges have been brought under the ordinance since it was passed in 2016.

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