By David B. Kopel
Gun Laws of Montana, by Gary Marbut (Missoula: Montana Publishing, 2003). More by Kopel on state constitution rights to arms.
The significance of Montana's gun laws extends far beyond the borders of Montana. On the whole, Montana's gun laws are the freest in the United States, and they thus set an example for freedom-loving people everywhere in the world.
Of course one can find isolated examples of more liberal laws in other states on particular subjects. For example, Vermont and Alaska have more liberal laws on concealed carrying of handguns. All the states which border Montana have good firearms laws.
But taken as a whole, Montana's laws are exemplary-not only because they impose so few restrictions on the fundamental human right to keep and bear arms, but also because of the ways in which Montana has taken affirmative steps to protect that right. Almost every one of the laws in this book would serve as a good model for reform legislation in other states and nations.
It would be a mistake to assume that Montana's laws are merely the result of geographical good fortune. Most of Montana is part of the farming Midwest, while the western part of the state is part of the Rocky Mountains. Yet there are many Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states with laws more restrictive than Montana's.
Nor is Montana by nature a libertarian state. As detailed by University of Montana Law Professor Rob Natelson, Montana has a long-standing tradition of government intervention in economic affairs. Compared to, for example, Colorado or Utah, Montana has a much bigger government, more government spending, and higher taxes.
The Montana Supreme Court has little interest in enforcing the limited government provisions of the state constitution. In 1999, the Court used specious reasoning to invalidate a tax and spending limitation which the voters had recently added to the Constitution by initiative.
And Montana's politics have always had a notable streak of pacifism. The late U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin had the distinction of being the only congressperson to vote against the Declaration of both World War One and World War Two. She was the only congressperson to vote against declaring war on Japan after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In the 1960s, Ms. Rankin lent her name to the "Jeanette Rankin Brigade," and led activists in protest against the Vietnam War.
Montana is also the home to committed anti-gun lobbyists who work hard at the state capitol. Ironically, some of these lobbyists style themselves as "human rights" activists, although their efforts focus on reducing the natural human of self-defense and bearing arms.
The Montana media is like the media of every other American state. That is, the more influential the medium, the more likely that the reporters and executives come from another state, are passing through the state on the way to somewhere else in their career, and share the general media antipathy towards Second Amendment rights.
The state's public college and universities are just as politically correct, and hostile to traditional constitutional rights, as most post-secondary institutions in other states.
In contrast to, say, Utah, Montana is not and never has been a solidly Republican state. Democrats are almost always competitive in statewide races, and often win. Nor are Montana Republicans necessarily rock-solid conservatives. Republican Governor Marc Racicot (1993 -- 2001) could fairly be characterized as a big-government moderate liberal, similar to former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, or Minnesota's Harold Stassen.
So why does Montana have such good laws? Well, as a farming and mining state, Montana does start with a strong tradition of outdoorsmanship and of self-reliance.
Moreover, Montana has long enjoyed the services of an excellent pro-rights
organization, the Montana State Shooting Association, which is headed by Gary
Marbut, the author of this book. Working effectively with the National Rifle
Association and other pro-freedom groups, the MSSA has a long record of finding
ways for the state to stay in the vanguard of Second Amendment rights. The MSSA
does not always win all its battles, but it wins most of them through effective
grassroots mobilization and through adroit participation in
the legislative process.
In Congress, Montana Congressmen for the last decade have had near-perfect voting records on gun issues. The significant exception was Democratic Senator Max Baucus, especially when he was under pressure from President Clinton. More recently, Senator Baucus has been a consistent supporter of the Second Amendment, as he was during the 1970s and 1980s.
Much more so than some other states, Montana's firearms laws are protective of due process. In domestic or criminal cases, the laws provide fair notice to a person who may be deprived of his or her gun rights.
Montana's concealed carry law is much more liberal than most other states, in that a permit is required only in cities, and permits may be issued to a person as young as 18. On the other hand, Montana prohibits concealed carry in all government buildings, banks, and all places where alcohol is served. Many states-even California-do not impose such restrictions on licensed carriers.
Because the federal National Firearms Act strictly regulates possession of machine guns and silencers, Montana does not duplicate this law, or impose additional restrictions.
Two Montana laws are notably and unduly severe. First, Montana has an archaic law against carrying firearms on trains.
More importantly, public firearms possession or use in public by persons under the age of 14 is prohibited, unless the person is under the supervision of a parent or other approved adult. This law is much more repressive than the laws of many other states. If prevents a 13-year-old from plinking at tin cans, or hunting, on open space next to her parents' farm with her parents' permission-unless the parents are directly supervising.
Significantly, Montana has strong laws to protect the long-term future of the state's firearms heritage. The range protection laws are among the best in the nation, and are especially important in an era in which people often build or buy homes near shooting ranges, and then begin complaining about the noise.
The firearms rights and hunting traditions of Montana are each commemorated with an officially-recognized state week in their honor, in which citizens are encouraged to use firearms and to hunt responsibly. Such laws can have a long-term positive impact on political consciousness, and human rights activists in other states might find the commemorative statutes to be an easy starting point for importing some of Montana's good laws into their own state.
Like the other state gun law books, Gun Laws of Montana is primarily intended to help residents and visitors to the state learn their state's laws. This book will serve as a very useful reference for attorneys, public safety officers, elected officials, and other persons concerned with state law.
But as a person who has only once enjoyed the opportunity to visit beautiful Montana, I would like to suggest that Gun Laws of Montagnais especially useful when read in conjunction with the gun laws of some other states.
After breezing through this rather short book of easily-understood laws, a reader might pick up the massive tome titled The California Gun Owner's Guide, and stare in horror at California's grotesquely complex compilation of gun laws-which by themselves are twice as long as all federal gun laws combined.
Nappen on New Jersey Gun Law is a horrifying book, filled with scores of extremely repressive laws. The due process rights of gun owners-and even the right to be governed by reasonably comprehensible laws which give fair warning about what is prohibited-have been nearly exterminated in New Jersey.
No state is more identified with gun rights than Texas, and Texas gun owners enjoy much more freedom than their unlucky counterparts in California or New Jersey. Yet The Texas Gun Owner's Guide contains many more restrictive laws than does the Montana guide, including a concealed carry state that is among the most illiberal of any of the 35 "shall issue" states.
It is worth remembering that until 1966, New Jersey had many fewer anti-gun laws than Montana does today. California did enact a one-day handgun waiting period in the 1930s as a one-day wait, and the wait was extended in 1955 to three days, 1965 to five days, and in 1975 to 15 days, and in 1990 this handgun purchase wait was extended to all guns. Except for the handgun waiting period, California's laws until the 1960s were barely more restrictive than Montana's.
The breadth and repressiveness of anti-gun laws in many states may seem overwhelming, as does the mean-spirited bigotry and ignorance on which such laws are founded. In many other countries, the situation is even worse. For some gun owners, these laws promote despair, and a resignation to the continuing erosion and eventual elimination of their rights.
Yet these bigoted laws are not necessarily any more permanent than the Jim Crow race laws which blighted our nation a century ago. It took decades of work for civil rights activists to remove these laws. At times, these activists were as lonely, and as reviled by majority opinion, as gun rights activists in Manhattan or London are today. Yet the activists never gave up. Although there were many setbacks, the activists continued working, step by step, to reform the laws, and to elevate the public's moral consciousness. Today, every single one of those odious Jim Crow laws has been eliminated.
So I believe that, over time, that people all over the world can reclaim their fundamental human right to defend themselves, and to keep and bear arms. The people of Harare, Zimbabwe, of Manchester, England, and of San Francisco, California once enjoyed these rights undisturbed, and they were much safer and more secure when they did.
Gun Laws of Montana provides an excellent model for reform of gun laws everywhere. Wherever your grandparents were born, they probably grew up with gun laws even more liberal than Montana's current laws. It is not asking too much for you to work to bequeath to you own grandchildren the same human rights protections found today in Montana. Thus, while the formal title of this book is Gun Laws of Montana, its ultimate role can be as The Global Citizen's Human Rights Guide.
David B. Kopel