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Montana lawmakers hear bill to block federal firearms bans

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HELENA — Montana lawmakers on Tuesday considered a measure that would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal bans on firearms and ammunition.

Supporters of the bill told the House Judiciary Committee that it would protect the Second Amendment from stiffer gun control laws that could be imposed by the Democrat-dominated U.S. Congress and the administration of President Joe Biden.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said "the time has come now to fortify Montana's gun owners against a very likely attack on our constitutionally protected freedoms."

The bill would ban state employees from enforcing or implementing federal bans on firearms, magazines or ammunition, except in certain cases, including those related to fully automatic firearms, violent felons, and domestic violence.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has attempted to pass the measure into law for almost a decade. Similar bills were vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Republican lawmakers hope the measure will find a more favorable fate on the desk of Gov. Greg Gianforte, the state's first Republican governor in 16 years.

In vetoing the bills, Bullock wrote that they would "put law enforcement officers in the position of violating laws they are sworn to uphold."

Hinkle and other supporters alluded to possible gun restrictions that could be reconsidered after the election of President Joe Biden — including a ban on AR-style rifles, universal background checks, restrictions on high-capacity magazines and a federal red flag law designed to prevent people at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing a firearm. But some have said such measures face an uphill battle amid polarization of the issue.

Opponents of the Montana bill said it would make it difficult for local law enforcement to collaborate with federal authorities on issues beyond gun access when such collaboration is essential to protect public safety, including domestic violence and drug offenses.

"Federal ban is defined in this bill so broadly that very little wouldn't fall under its prohibitions for enforcement," said Kelly Lynch, deputy director and general counsel of the Montana League of Cities and Towns.

Lynch also pointed to an apparent contradiction in Republican lawmakers' priorities, after the House Judiciary Committee last week advanced a bill to prohibit the establishment of sanctuary cities in Montana by requiring local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.

That bill was endorsed last week by Gianforte. Montana does not have any designated sanctuary cities.

"These decisions should be left to local law enforcement, elected officials, and employees, based on local circumstances," Lynch said.

Supporters of the gun rights bill said it would protect the Second Amendment from attacks at the federal level.

It "is important to ensure that our law enforcement aren't being pressured in any way to violate our Second Amendment rights, and to not violate their oath of office to uphold the constitution," Hinkle said.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote later this week on whether to advance the bill so it can be debated by the full House.

The Montana Senate was expected to hold a preliminary vote Tuesday afternoon on another bill to expand the list of places where people can carry concealed firearms — including university campuses, banks, the Capitol and other state and local government buildings. The bill would also allow concealed firearms to be carried without a permit in most places across the state.

The measure is another effort by Republican legislators to revive gun-related bills previously vetoed by Democratic governors with the hope that the new Republican governor will sign them into law.

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