HELENA — Firearms dealers in states that regulate medical marijuana can't sell guns or ammunition to registered users of the drug, a policy that marijuana and gun-rights groups say denies Second Amendment rights to individuals who are following state law.
It's already illegal under federal law for someone to possess guns if he or she is "an unlawful user of, or addicted to" marijuana or other controlled substances. A Sept. 21 letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, issued in response to numerous inquiries from gun dealers, clarifies that medical marijuana patients are included in that definition.
"There are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by state law," said the letter by Arthur Herbert, the ATF's assistant director for enforcement programs and services.
Federal firearm licensees, or FFLs, already can't sell guns to buyers who answer "yes" when a required form asks whether the buyer is a controlled substance user. Last week's letter also says that licensed dealers can't sell a gun or ammunition if they have "reasonable cause to believe" the buyer is using a controlled substance.
That includes if the buyer presents a medical marijuana card as identification or if the buyer talks about drug use, having a medical marijuana card or a recent drug conviction, ATF spokesman Drew Wade said Wednesday.
But there are no new obligations for gun dealers outlined in the letter, Wade said.
" We received lots of queries from the industry from various states of how to deal with state legislation and the federal law," he said. "It's our responsibility to provide advice and guidance."
The ATF letter was first reported by Lee Newspapers of Montana.
Pro-marijuana and gun groups said the policy clarification amounts to rescinding the gun rights for the thousands of people who are registered in the 16 states that have medical marijuana laws. And it appears to contradict a 2009 Department of Justice memo that said the Obama administration would not pursue prosecution of individual medical marijuana users who comply with their states' laws.
Besides that, the government is putting an additional burden on gun dealers to police their customers, said Montana Shooting Sports Association Gary Marbut.
"Their business is to be merchants, not to be cops. Unfortunately, the federal licensing scheme complicates that," Marbut said. "It sounds as if the (ATF) is expecting them to drift further into the cop role."
Wade said both the 2009 memo and last week's letter were approved by the Justice Department and he does not believe there is a contradiction in the two messages. He also that the dealers are in a good position to help prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands.
"The FFLs aren't cops but they are at the front line of protecting America from criminals or people who are prohibited from possessing firearms," Wade said.
A salesman at one licensed firearms dealer, Montana Outdoor Sports in Helena, said he doesn't expect much to change as a result of the letter because it's largely up to the buyer to reveal whether he or she is a medical marijuana user.
"Who's going to say yes to that?" asked Damon Peters, a sales associate for the store and a licensed hunting guide.
"A lot of users of medical marijuana aren't really shooting sports enthusiasts, anyway. I think we may see a sale or two lost, but I don't see anything dramatic that's going to affect us," he said.