Montanans aim to pick a fight over guns

Maneuvers could lead to high court

The Associated PressApril 30, 2009 

  • The drafters of the Montana law hope to set off a legal battle with a simple Montana-made youth-model single-shot, bolt-action .22 rifle. They plan to find a "squeaky clean" Montanan who wants to send a note to the ATF threatening to build and sell about 20 such rifles without federal dealership licensing.

    If the ATF tells them it's illegal, they will sue and take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if they can.

— Montana is trying to trigger a battle over gun control -- and perhaps make a larger point about what many folks in this ruggedly independent state regard as a meddlesome federal government.

In a bill passed by the state legislature earlier this month, the state is asserting that guns manufactured in Montana and sold in Montana to people who intend to keep their weapons in Montana are exempt from federal gun registration, background checks and dealer-licensing rules because no state lines are crossed.

That notion is all but certain to be tested in court.

The immediate effect of the law could be limited, since Montana is home to just a few specialty gun makers, known for high-end hunting rifles and replicas of Old West weapons, and because their out-of-state sales would automatically trigger federal control.

Still, much bigger prey lies in Montana's sights: a legal showdown over how far federal regulatory authority extends.

"It's a gun bill, but it's another way of demonstrating the sovereignty of the state of Montana," said Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who signed the bill.

Carrie DiPirro, a spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, had no comment.

Guns and states' rights both play well in Montana, the birthplace of the right-wing Freemen militia and a participant in the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and '80s, during which Western states clashed with Washington over grazing and mineral extraction on federal land.

Montana's leading gun rights group, more hardcore than the National Rifle Association, boasts it has moved 50 bills through the legislature in 25 years.

Under the new law, guns intended only for Montana would be stamped "Made in Montana."

Critics say exempting guns from federal laws anywhere would undermine efforts to stem gun violence everywhere.

"Guns cross state lines and they do so constantly, and this is a Sagebrush Rebellion-type effort to light some sort of fire and get something going that's pleasing to the gun nuts and that has very little actual sense," said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

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