A man holds a Ruger revolver at the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., April 27, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
In 2016, the city of Missoula, Mont., passed an ordinance requiring background checks for the transfer or sale of any firearm, including those sold at gun shows. The law included some exceptions, such as those involving immediate family members, antique firearms, members of law enforcement, and temporary transfers “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to the transferee.”
Like 40 other states, Montana has a state law that bars localities from enacting gun control laws that are stricter than existing state law — a doctrine of preemption.
Montana attorney general Timothy Fox argued that the Missoula ordinance violated preexisting state law that declared:
a county, city, town, consolidated local government, or other local government unit may not prohibit, register, tax, license, or regulate the purchase, sale or other transfer (including delay in purchase, sale, or other transfer), ownership, possession, transportation, use, or unconcealed carrying of an weapon, including a rifle, shotgun, handgun, or concealed handgun.
This was apparently an open and shut case: The Montana Supreme Court ruled, 5-0, that the Missoula ordinance violated state law. Associate Justice Jim Rice noted that the ordinance did not merely apply to “those who are convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens, and minors, but by everyone who engages in a transaction with a private, unlicensed dealer and who does not qualify for an exception under the ordinance.”
The decision has the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action — their lobbying arm — cheering.
“This is a huge victory for Montana gun owners and everyone who cherishes freedom in Big Sky Country,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director, NRA-ILA. “The unanimous ruling from Montana’s Supreme Court confirms that politicians cannot usurp a constitutional framework by contemptuously enacting gun control at the local level.”
It’s the second time this week that a local ordinance has been struck down because it conflicted with existing state law. In Washington state, a Snohomish County superior court judge concluded that Edmonds, Wash., had similarly overstepped its authority with an ordinance requiring all gun owners to store all firearms with locking devices that make the weapon inaccessible or unusable to anyone but the owner or other lawful user.
A cynic might conclude that local officials who want to gun control laws care as much about state preemption laws as they care about the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
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