Gov. Brian Schweitzer has signed into law a bill that aims to exempt Montana-made guns from federal regulation, adding firepower to a battery of legislative efforts to assert states' rights across the nation.
"It's a gun bill, but it's another way of demonstrating the sovereignty of the state of Montana," Democrat Schweitzer said.
Since the law applies only to those guns that are made and kept in Montana, its impact is limited. The state is home to just a handful of specialty gun makers, known for recreating rifles used to settle the West, and most of their customers are out-of-state.
But supporters of the new law hope it triggers a court case testing the legal basis for federal rules governing gun sales.
"What we need here is for Montana to be able to handle Montana's business and affairs," bill sponsor Rep. Joel Boniek, a Republican and wilderness guide from Livingston, told fellow lawmakers during the bill's House debate.
The measure is one of many introduced by state lawmakers across the nation seeking to confront what some see as a federal overreach into state matters that will be extended with the national stimulus plan.
Along with the gun bill, Montana legislators are considering a resolution that affirms the 10th Amendment principle that the federal government only has those powers that are specifically given to it by the U.S. Constitution.
"The whole goal is to awaken the people so that we can return to a properly grounded republic," Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway and the Montana resolution's sponsor, said at a House committee hearing Wednesday.
As many as fifteen other Legislatures have also been mulling resolutions that buck federal control in states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, Missouri and Oklahoma.
"The balance has swung far to the extreme to the empowerment of the federal government, and to the harm of the individual states," More said.
Opponents of the state sovereignty bids, however, warn they could give legitimacy to the kind of anti-government ideas that fueled the militia movement in Montana and elsewhere.
"When you really actually get in and look at it there is a lot of what we feel is very dangerous, very anti-government language that reads very similar to posters for the militia movement in the 1990s," said Travis McAdam, the interim director of the Montana Human Rights Network, a group formed to oppose racism and extremism.
One of the few state Senators who voted against the gun bill -- Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena -- is that group's director when the Legislature is not in session. She ties the bills' proliferation to fears about the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and stimulus spending.
"I do think that there is a kind of renewed vehemence to this kind of right-wing rhetoric being spewed by conservative talk show hosts to rile the troops and they are using the fact that we have a Democratic, black president as one of their rallying calls," Kaufmann said.
The Montana bills are being sponsored by freshman legislators who ran as part of a broader effort to oust more moderate Republicans in last spring's elections.
House Resolution 3, the one sponsored by More, follows another states' rights declaration that deadlocked in the same committee earlier this session, although the committee's chairman said it may have a shot on its second try.
House Bill 246, the Montana-made gun bill, cleared the Legislature easily before reaching the governor's desk.
Its supporters next plan to find a "squeaky clean" Montanan who wants to send a note to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives threatening to build and sell about 20 rifles without federal dealership licensing. If the ATF says it's illegal, the gun bill's backers plan to file a lawsuit in federal court with the goal of launching a legal showdown that lands in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Montana Shooting Sports Association, which drafted the bill, has said it will raise the money to pay for any legal costs.