HELENA — State lawmakers debated the latest batch of Republican-backed gun bills Wednesday, measures that would allow legislators to carry guns in the Capitol, limit police officers' authority to seize weapons and reduce federal authority over Montana firearms.
Gun-rights bills often have bipartisan backing from lawmakers who say guns are an important part of Montana life. However, the more permissive proposals now being considered have drawn criticism from some legislators and law enforcers who say the measures may go too far and endanger the public.
Republican Rep. Krayton Kerns said all the gun bills this session are part of a coordinated effort to protect people's right to bear arms, which he said is being threatened by courts, among others.
"We could easily lose our constitutional rights to keep and bear arms, fundamental rights of self-defense," the Laurel lawmaker said.
Silencers, concealed weapons laws already passed
Other Republican bills that have already been endorsed by the House would allow hunters to use silencers and let people carry weapons into places where they're now prohibited, such as banks and bars.
Last session Kerns said gun bills were concentrated in a smaller number of proposals, this time around he said gun-rights advocates coordinated a larger number of bills to try and receive passage on more measures.
Montana Shooting Sports Association coordinates effprts
The Montana Shooting Sports Association in particular has helped coordinate a number of the gun rights bills, Kerns said. The association's website lists 20 bills on their legislative agenda that have to do with hunting and gun rights.
Sen. Verdell Jackson made his case to the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow legislators and security guards to carry concealed weapons in the state Capitol, saying lawmakers would be "sitting ducks" if a gunman opened fire in the building.
Bill would 'protect' lawmakers
Allowing lawmakers and security guards to carry weapons would minimize the loss of life if there is an attack, he said.
"They would probably get the first one, two or three, but they're not going to be able to get 30 or 40 people," Jackson said.
The Kalispell Republican used last month's shooting outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded to illustrate his point on why Senate Bill 279 was needed.
No witnesses testified for or against the bill, and the committee did not take immediate action.
Put limits on gun seizures
In the House, Derek Skees pitched a plan to the Judiciary Committee to place conditions on when authorities can seize a person's firearms. He said House Bill 435 would also make it easier for law-abiding citizens to get their weapons back when they are seized.
Supporters of the measure said the bill gives protection from officers who might overstep their bounds in gun seizure.
"We do not allow police total discretion about what their job is," said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
Some members of law enforcement opposed the bill, saying limiting weapon seizure would endanger officers in the field.
'Delicate balancing act ... '
"What it comes down to for us is risk management on the roadside," said police Col. Mike Tooley of the Montana Highway Patrol. "This is a very delicate balancing act of safety and rights, that today works about as well as it can."
Also Wednesday, two bills carried by Kerns were heard in the House Judiciary committee to limit enforcement of federal firearms laws. Both bills attempt to strengthen the Montana Firearms Freedom Act that seeks to prohibit federal regulation of firearms manufactured in Montana.
That law's legality has been challenged in court.
Endorce federal laws and go to jail?
House Bill 381 would punish any official who tries to enforce federal laws that run counter to the Firearms Freedom Act with a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 448 would allow the governor to enter into a Firearms Freedom Act with other states.
Those supporting the act said the bill is about asserting states' rights.
"It's a way to continue our peaceful revolution without bullets," said Helena resident Lisa Wamsley.
Opponents said the bill could be unconstitutional and unjustly assumes that law enforcement is going to commit crimes against Montanans.
HB 448 passed out of committee and will head to the House floor.