HELENA — Gun rights measures that include a plan to push back against potential federal restrictions on assault rifles were endorsed Thursday in the Montana House, despite criticism they may thwart law enforcement or lead to constitutional showdowns with the federal government.
The Republican-led chamber endorsed the three gun-rights bills in an initial vote, which drew most of their opposition from Democrats.
Supporters said the state needs to ban police from enforcing any future federal assault-weapons ban in the state. They argue it would undermine what would be an unconstitutional infringement on gun rights, if the federal government were to restrict such weapons.
"When it is not constitutional it is our obligation to stand up and call them into question," said Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel.
Wyoming is considering a similar proposal that goes a step further by threatening federal officials with criminal sanctions if they tried to enforce a future federal assault weapons ban. Montana's bill attempts to control state and local officers.
Opponents said the "extreme" measure unconstitutionally attempts to trump federal law. They noted it was opposed by police and sheriff organizations who say it places them in a very difficult situation, and could interfere with cooperative law enforcement efforts.
A state or local officer who enforces such a federal law would be subject to official misconduct charges.
"This bill pushes and agenda that Montanans don't want, and don't need," said House Democratic Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena.
The House also backed measures that clear the way for nearly anyone to carry concealed weapons without a permit, and would allow the use of rifle sound suppressors when hunting. All three measures must pass a final vote before going to the Senate.
Gun rights advocates have previously tried, and failed, to expand concealed carry law in the state to gut the requirement for a formal permit. The measure is benefiting from a renewed push this year amid as gun rights measures receive more attention amid fear of a potential federal government overreach on gun laws.
It says that anyone who would qualify for a permit under current guidelines could carry concealed without getting a formal permit. People who determine themselves qualified would be exempt from having to actually get a permit.
Supporters pointed out that concealed carry is currently allowed by anyone outside of city limits, a policy they said has worked.
Opponents include law enforcement groups who argue that the current system, which requires a sheriff to approve the permit, does a good job of helping ensure that mentally unstable people or troublemakers in the community don't get a permit. They argued that the proposal would render the permit system useless and make it difficult for police to determine who is allowed to be carrying guns.
"This bill basically says if you think in your head you can carry concealed, then you can carry concealed," said Rep. Margie McDonald of Billings.
Several other gun measures are advancing in the Legislature, included two expected to be endorsed by the full House on Friday.
One of those bills would allow college students to bring guns on campus, and allow the carry of concealed weapons in some currently prohibited places such as bars and banks.