City rekindles debate over background checks on firearms while sponsors face threats

Gun Hearing
Tim Ravndal, center, of the Constitution Defenders spoke against a proposed Missoula ordinance that would require background checks for all gun sales and transfers. He has targeted one particular City Council member on his Facebook page, including threats of rape and violence. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Members of the Missoula City Council reignited the debate over mandatory background checks within city limits on Wednesday, a measure supporters believe will reduce violence against women and cut the number of suicides carried out by firearms.

While half the City Council is newly elected, the arguments presented for and against the measure remain largely unchanged from last year, though opponents now enjoy the support of Tim Ravndal, who heads the Constitution Defenders out of Townsend.

“Here is the lead tyrant in Missoula that wants your guns and wishes to throw unknown refugees onto the streets of Montana,” Ravndal wrote on his Facebook page with a photo of one of Missoula’s female council members. “(She) accuses those that seek transparency and accountability of hate and fear mongers. She needs your help God!”

It’s not the first time sponsors of the Missoula ordinance have been threatened with violence, though they’ve been reluctant to discuss it publicly. The comments resulting from Ravndal’s post, however, were troubling.

“Let the rapes begin at her address,” Ken Printz responded with a Facebook post.

“Maybe she just needs some redneck love to get her to drop the liberal bull shit,” wrote Trevor Ogden-Sanchez.

While those present at Wednesday’s hearing before the Public Safety and Health Committee kept their comments civil, the periphery language marks a change in the already tense debate surrounding mandatory background checks for all gun sales and transfers within the city of Missoula.

Lead sponsor and Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossburg said that while the city isn’t required by procedure to reopen the discussion for a public hearing since it it did so last October, he felt it was important to include the city’s six new council members in the debate.

“While the city is not required to reopen the public hearing, that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do with the legislation given there were six people who didn’t participate in the process initially,” von Lossberg said. “The prudent, responsible and deliberate thing to do is go through the process of another public hearing.”

The proposed legislation first surfaced before the Public Safety and Health Committee last fall where it quickly became controversial, with both supporters and opponents weighing in.

Sponsors have since amended the proposal at the request of critics to include an exemption for transferees younger than 18-years-old and for those who already posses a valid concealed weapons permit in the state of Montana.

Under the proposal, background checks would not be required for gun transfers between immediate family members, nor for the transfer of relic firearms between collectors. Rather, it would require private parties selling and buying in other circumstances to meet at a licensed dealer where the buyer must pass a background check.

“There are 18 states that require comprehensive background check legislation that requires background checks on all firearm transactions, whether they’re purchasing new or conducting a private transaction,” von Lossberg said. “There’s data that shows there’s substantially lower suicides with guns and women shot and killed by intimate partners in those states.”

Supporters believe the proposed ordinance falls under the purview of what local governments can consider. According to Montana Code Annotated, municipalities are authorized to “prevent and suppress the possession of firearms” by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents and illegal aliens.

However, not all council members are convinced that the law’s interpretation is accurate and sought additional legal direction on Wednesday. Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells, one of the body’s newly elected members, believes that while some rights allow exceptions, the right to keep and bear arms does not.

“When I look at the right to bear arms, it’s just straight out – the right for any person to keep and bear arms,” Wells said. “The only carve-out in the Montana Constitution, which every person at this table swore to uphold and defend, says we can stop concealed-carry, but other than that, there is no carve-out.”

City Attorney Jim Nugent issued a legal ruling last year that found the city has the legislative right to adopt the proposed ordinance. Nugent vowed to get Wells the legal language noting that right.

According to data presented by supporters of the measure, more than 500 guns are currently for sale on a popular firearms website within the state, and no background checks are required to buy them.

In states that have already initiated mandatory background checks, 46 percent fewer women and shot and killed by their intimate partners, and 48 percent fewer people complete suicide with a firearm, according to the data.

While the proposal won’t serve as a “silver bullet,” supporters believe it can help reduce gun violence.

“I feel like there’s a problem in the country right now, and some of these things have to start at the local government level and people have to voluntarily contribute to that public safety,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler, one of the measure’s cosponsors. “I don’t view it as infringing upon my Second Amendment right. I feel like it’s my responsibility as a gun owner to participate responsibly.”

Opponents present Wednesday raised questions of the measure’s financial costs and enforcement. The measure, they contend, is unenforceable.

“Any transaction can happen right at the edge of town,” said opponent Clint Becker. “The suicides and victims – the women – that can’t be stopped. If someone wants to hurt another, they’re going to do it, whether it’s with a knife, a gun or explosives. This does nothing to stop violence.”

Others, however, urged the city to move forward and quit dancing around the proposal.

“It’s time Missoula stands up and passes something with background checks,” said Patrick Weasel Head. “We keep putting this off and putting this off. We need to make a decision soon. I don’t think this is against the rights of people, but rather, for the safety of Missoula.”