March 11, 2021

Dear Senator Tester,

About "universal background checks" and Montana:

The U.S. House has just voted to pass H.R. 8, which would invoke what is called "universal background checks."

Montana has a recent history with what are called "universal background checks" (UBC) by some.  UBCs basically require a federal NICS clearance and record for the otherwise legal transfer of firearms between private individuals.  Private transfers are often done in Montana as a way to gift firearms to children or employees, as a loan for hunting, as a normal part of barter and exchange, or for many other legitimate purposes. A UBC would criminalize this common and legal practice.

UBCs are sometimes billed as a way to "close the gunshow loophole."  This is even though there is no such thing as a "gun show loophole."  Vendors at gun shows who have a Federal Firearms License (FFL) are already required to run a NICS check for the recipient of any firearm transfer.  Plus, criminals get guns by stealing them and selling them to other criminals.  Very few guns used in crimes are obtained at gun shows.

Many Montanans believe that a UBC mandate is just a step towards national gun registration, something that Montanans abhor.

To assess the political desirability of UBC in Montana, there is a recent political experiment to look at.  The City of Missoula adopted a UBC ordinance, against the advice of all but anti-gun Michael Bloomberg of NYC.  That was a huge political mistake by Missoula and had an enormous political backlash in Montana.

First, the Montana Attorney General informed Missoula in an Opinion that the Missoula UBC was unenforceable because it violated Montana law limiting local governments' authority to regulate firearms, Montana's "preemption" law (just as we had advised the City Council).  Then the matter got into Montana courts and the Montana Supreme Court ultimately echoed exactly what the Attorney General had already told Missoula.

That dustup triggered HB 357 in the 2019 legislative session which spawned Legislative Referendum 130.  LR-130 was approved by Montana voters in the 2020 General Election and stripped local governments of most residual power under Montana law to regulate firearms, including the power Missoula had abused.  This was notwithstanding that opponents unsuccessfully spent $2 million to oppose LR-130, while Montana supporters of LR-130 spent absolutely nothing (MSSA conducted an entirely grassroots campaign in support of LR-130).

Then, between HB 102 in the 2021 session, which is now signed into law, and HB 436 which is successfully pending, all remaining power of local governments to regulate firearms will have been stripped away.

All of this political fallout occurred because Californiacentric members of the Missoula City Council insisted, against all advice, in kicking the particular hornets' nest of a UBC.  Because Missoula was so unwise and eager to be "progressive," every local government in Montana was stripped of any power to regulate firearms, power that Missoula had clearly abused according to the Attorney General and the Montana Supreme Court.

So, this is the recent political history of the UBC concept in Montana, a history that might serve as a guide for you as you consider the idea at the federal level.  This progressive political idea is clearly not right for Montana and it is politically unacceptable here.

If or when H.R. 8 should come before the Senate, we strongly urge you to both work and vote against it.  The political tea leaves are clear for anyone to read.  The UBC concept has been floated in Montana and proven recently to be highly unpopular, so unpopular that Missoula has become the political pariah among Montana local governments for deliberately venturing into and triggering that political minefield.

Sincerely yours,

Gary Marbut, president
Montana Shooting Sports Association
Author, Gun Laws of Montana