Republicans propose constitutional amendment on Montana’s right to bear arms

Gun Rights

If Democrats regain political power in Montana in the future, it’d be good to have gun rights soundly secured in the Montana Constitution.

That’s the argument Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, made Wednesday with a supermajority of Republicans in control of the Montana Legislature.

In the House Judiciary Committee, Mitchell argued in favor of a bill that would ask voters to amend the state constitution to protect the rights of gun owners to carry a concealed weapon without a permit — as the legislature did last session in statute.

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Currently, Article II Section 12 of the state constitution protects the right to bear arms, but not under all circumstances:

“The right of any person to keep or bear arms in defense of his own home, person, and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall not be called in question, but nothing herein contained shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.”

House Bill 551 would strike out the last portion of the provision, the exception against concealed weapons.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association, a law enforcement officer, a state senator, and a representative of the NRA also spoke as proponents. Opposing the bill were representatives with Gun Owners for Safety.

Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, is the lead sponsor of the bill, and roughly 50 other legislators have signed onto it. Since it’s a proposed constitutional amendment, it requires two-thirds of the legislature to pass, then approval from voters at the polls.

Mitchell said the legislature adopted permitless concealed carry into Montana law last session, the state has the highest rate per capita of gun owners in the U.S., and the bill would be another step to ensure law abiding citizens can protect themselves.

“Gun rights in Montana is no red or blue issue, unless maybe you’re in Missoula or Whitefish,” Mitchell said.

However, Nick Gevock, a volunteer with Gun Owners for Safety, said since the legislature already repealed concealed carry permitting, the bill wouldn’t actually help Montanans.

“Law-abiding Montanans can already carry a concealed gun without a permit,” Gevock said. “House Bill 551 would do nothing to change that. What it would do is open the door to more guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”

For example, he said federal courts have ruled domestic abusers can’t be prohibited from carrying guns. As such, he argued a judge might interpret the change in the Montana Constitution to mean even convicted murderers must be allowed to carry concealed guns.

“As gun owners, we believe it is critical to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others,” Gevock said.

Gevock described himself as a gun owner and the organization as one that takes Second Amendment rights for Montanans seriously: “Gun ownership has always been a part of who we are.”

In favor of the bill, Gary Marbut, with the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said he believes the provision in the state constitution was taken from a nearly identical one in the 1875 Missouri Constitution, and he argued it has racist roots. At the time, he said people wanted to keep newly freed Black people disarmed and submissive with Jim Crow laws.

At the meeting, he read an essay from a book edited by Montana historian K. Ross Toole. The essay talked about a time gangs of Democrats tried to keep Black people from voting in Helena, and a white bully brutally slayed a well-known local Black man, known as “’N— ‘ Sammy Hays,” said Marbut, reading from the essay and stating the epithet in full.

“The marshal who tried to jail the assassin had to fight his way through a hostile crowd,” Marbut said, quoting from part of the book.

He said amending the constitution would help remove one last bit of racism from the books: “There are lots of examples about prejudice at that time in Montana.”

In questions, however, Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, said she suspected the push for the amendment wasn’t so much about addressing racism as it was pressing forward on gun rights. As such, she wanted to know if Knudsen, the sponsor, had researched the intent of the delegates of the 1972 Montana Constitution.

“Would you recognize that the framers did not want the door completely open in the most recent convention around concealed carry?” Bishop asked.

Knudsen said he did some research but would need to do more to thoroughly answer her question. However, he said he believed the provision was more a copy and paste, in part because the delegates still did not want to fully open the door to concealed carry in 1972 given their lingering fears related to historical events in Montana.

At the same time, he said he did not believe the amendment would throw out all gun restrictions.

“We still regulate firearms. We regulate the ability to carry firearms. That is not going to change,” Knudsen said.

Another legislator, Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County, also spoke in support of the bill. Usher said Montana shouldn’t need to amend its constitution given the Second Amendment, but he still supports the idea.

“I’d like to see you guys pass this so I have the honor to be able to vote for it in the Senate,” Usher said.

The committee did not take immediate action on the proposal.

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