A voter registers in a polling station at an elementary school during a special election in May 2017 in Missoula, Mont. Montana voters will decide whether local governments should be allowed to set tighter gun restrictions (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

MISSOULA, Mont. — Gary Marbut says Americans would be a lot safer if everyone owned a gun.

“The bad people would gradually be eliminated from the population by the multitude of good people who are armed,” he said days after a weekend of mass shootings left 31 dead and sent shock waves across the country.

So Marbut was furious when the Missoula city council passed a law requiring stricter background checks. The measure would not impact him personally, since he lives just outside the city. But the president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association is opposed on principle.

In 2020, he’ll have a chance to help reshape the law.

On Election Day, Montana voters will decide whether local governments should be allowed to set tighter gun restrictions. The referendum, if passed, would reverse Missoula’s law and make it impossible for other towns and cities to set their own gun policies.

It’s the latest in a three-year tug-of-war, one that’s playing out across the country as Republican-controlled legislatures try to block local governments from enacting liberal policies on guns.

Mark Grimes, a biology professor at the University of Montana who lives in Missoula, thinks this is a mistake. The “urban experience” gives residents a different perspective on guns, he said.

“Why shouldn’t Missoula, which has a gun show, regulate the sale of firearms?” he said. “I’ve been to these shows where you can just buy guns with cash. Anyone can buy them; a terrorist can buy one. It doesn’t make sense not to regulate, and background checks don’t affect my ability to buy a gun.”

Missoula’s gun-control battle started in September 2016, when the city council passed a bill that required individuals selling guns to perform background checks.

The measure’s supporters say it merely closed a loophole in the federal law. But opponents at the statehouse saw something darker. In January 2017, the state’s attorney general declared the measure unlawful. In response, the city sued.

A district judge ruled in the city’s favor, arguing that the law did not violate state law. (That decision is under consideration by the state’s Supreme Court.)

So gun rights activists and Republican legislators tried a different tack, drafting a bill that would have made it illegal for local governments to tighten gun laws. It passed the state legislature but was vetoed in May 2019 by Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who said it would eliminate local control over whether the “mentally ill” can bring guns into schools, or whether a local government can permit concealed weapons.

Now, opponents of Missoula’s law are taking it to the people, putting a measure preventing local governments from tightening gun laws on the ballot in 2020.

Bryan von Lossberg, a member of the city council, argues the state ballot is an is an attempt to take away the rights of local authorities.

“Background checks save lives,” he said. “That’s why we passed this to begin with. We have good evidence that the system is effective, and my first duty is to my constituents is their safety.”

He and others also say voters inside the city limits of Missoula, a relatively liberal enclave, want the ordinance upheld.

“People shouldn’t just be able to get guns,” said Tammy Randall, 51. She also expressed concern that the vote could remove the power of local government to legislate in the absence of national gun control efforts. Cities “should have tough laws so that not just anybody can buy one,” she said. “They shouldn’t change the rules back.”

But opponents of Missoula’s law say it went way too far.

Steve Schoepke, a 65-year-old gun owner from nearby Stevensville, whose wife carries her own “cocked and loaded” firearm in her purse, describes himself as a “firm believer in the Second Amendment.” He supports the state ballot initiative to repeal the ordinance.

Gun-rights advocates rally during a protest at the Montana Capitol, March 24, 2018, in Helena, Mont. The counter-protest was held at the same time as the nationwide March for Our Lives rally was taking place. Image credit: ABC News

“It’s not a gun issue in this country: It’s a morality issue. I don’t know what the answer is, but taking away people’s right to defend themselves isn’t one of them,” he said.

Others say that allowing local governments to write their own gun laws will be confusing for Montana residents.

“What we want to do is prevent some kind of patchwork of gun-control laws around Montana, which are basically set to entrap innocent people who don’t have time to study up on them,” Marbut said. “It’s not going to work and the people who are going to be impacted by it are law-abiding gun owners.”

But Grimes says this argument is just an excuse. “It’s a legislative maneuver,” he said.

Grimes became involved with a group that called itself “responsible gun owners,” after learning that a handgun he sold in Missoula had been used in a homicide in Denver, in 2005. Under Missoula’s new law, he would have had to perform a background check before the sale.

The shooting in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, hit him hard. “That it’s tied to Trump’s rhetoric and was so predicable,” he said.

Grimes supports Missoula’s effort to tighten background checks. He pointed to an article in a peer-reviewed medical journal, the Lancet, that showed that states with universal background checks had fewer gun deaths.

He also says local governments deserve to be able to make their own rules.

Speaking in his university lab, he said the ordinance was the “least we can do.” He still owns a dozen guns himself.

But, he said, “Safety is paramount.”


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