HELENA – The halls of Congress are more than 2,000 miles away, but when it comes to the debate over guns, the two capitals seem poles apart.
In Washington, the argument is over President Barack Obama’s push to ban military-style weapons and to better investigate those who buy guns.
In Helena, the focus is on bills allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons in more places and defying any new federal laws restricting the kinds of guns Montanans can buy.
To veteran political observers, that’s no surprise.
“Generally speaking, gun control is unpopular in Montana among both political parties,” said Jim Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “In the Montana Legislature, I’d expect a move more to expand gun rights as opposed to controlling those rights.”
Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved seven bills that would generally expand citizens’ gun rights. Nearly all passed along strict party lines, with Republicans voting in favor. All seven are headed to the House floor soon for a broader debate.
As legislators consider their votes, Lopach predicts they will look at policy and legal discussions taking place in other states.
Some lawmakers have already done that research. The House Judiciary Committee recently heard debate on a measure similar to ones proposed in Arizona and Wyoming. House Bill 302 would prohibit the enforcement of a potential federal ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines.
“This is the response of a sovereign state to the unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel. “Not only is it our right to do this, it is our obligation.”
Opponents of the bill called it unconstitutional and yet another example of a bill aimed at nullifying a federal law. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass several nullification measures in 2011.
“Which federal laws would you propose we follow and don’t follow?” Missoula Rep. Ellie Hill, a Democrat, asked one of the bill’s backers. “Do they include slavery? Which federal laws could we determine that the state should decide it should follow, and which federal laws do you think we shouldn’t?”
Lopach said that if states were to pass such measures, they would immediately be challenged in federal court. “It would have a slim chance of surviving because federal law is the supreme law of the land,” he added.
As House members determine where they stand on that bill, they also face arguments on a number of other gun rights measures, many of which would change concealed carry laws.
One measure, House Bill 358, would allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons in places like bars, banks and public facilities. Currently, people can only openly carry weapons into those places. Another measure, House Bill 240, would allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
“These (bills) are really independent of the recent rise in interest on the national scene,” said proponent Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. “These were conceived to address issues that were existing well before Obama.”
Indeed, a number of the bills have returned to the Legislature for a second, third or fourth time after failing during previous sessions.
The same people tend to testify for and against the measures, and they often rehash familiar arguments, Marbut said.
At least one opponent, however, said the national debate has heightened fears that the federal government wants to take citizens’ guns away. Those fears surfaced in 2008 when Obama was first elected, said John BowenHollow, a former Navy SEAL who testified against several measures last week.
“I feel like we’re too entrenched now to listen,” he said.
BowenHollow said violence cannot be solved by simply drawing a line in the sand to establish specific restrictions. He added that true change needs to start at the top, with people willing to engage in a respectful dialogue.
“None of our leaders will speak up and say there are limits to the Second Amendment,” he said. “Until we get some leadership that starts to educate the public, you can’t bring about a middle ground.”
Others propose a different method to protect the public.
“If there’s a madman with a gun, all the hope and prayer and hiding under a desk won’t help,” Marbut said. “The only thing that will help is another person with a gun.”
While advocates on both sides acknowledge the tragedy of recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut or the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., they have yet to find the middle ground BowenHollow so greatly desires.
Amid talk in Congress and at dinner tables across America, the debate in Montana’s statehouse will likely continue for sessions to come, just as it has for decades.
“These terrible events happen so frequently that I think the debate is always there,” Lopach said. “But there are so many uncertainties that I think both sides will continue to push until there’s more legal clarity.”