MISSOULA — Calling the nation’s mounting number of gun-related deaths “mind numbing,” more than 100 people stood in the rain in downtown Missoula on Saturday to rally for sensible gun laws aimed at background checks and red flag laws.
The rally came on the heels of the latest mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, and as the debate over gun legislation heats up in Washington, D.C. Missoula’s own ordinance on background checks is pending a decision before the state Supreme Court.
“Some say you can’t talk about common-sense gun solutions in Montana, but that’s wrong,” said Missoula City Council president Bryan von Lossberg.
“Healthy families, healthy communities, healthy countries talk about their problems, they debate approaches and solutions, they find common ground, they compromise, and they take action. Do you know what stops that from happening? Fear, shame and cowardice.”
Von Lossberg introduced an ordinance calling for background checks on all gun sales and transfers in city limits four years ago. The measure passed the City Council but was challenged by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican now running for governor.
A District Court judge ruled on the case in Missoula’s favor last year, pressing Fox to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. Fox filed his final briefing in the cast least week, and a decision could come as soon as this year.
If it’s upheld by the state’s high court, it would make Missoula the first city in Montana to pass such an ordinance, and one of only a handful in the country to have done so. The debate has gained traction in the nation’s capital, with nearly all candidates running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in support of background checks in some form.
“The mass shootings are the national tragedy around which we coalesce as a country around the unacceptable tragic nature of this,” von Lossberg said. “But for me, it’s the domestic violence, the intimate partner violence and homicide, and the suicides. They’re real issues for our community and real issues across Montana.”
According to the city’s brief to the Montana Supreme Court, background checks in the state have stopped more than 21,500 gun sales to prohibited people in the last 20 years. Advocates cite the figure as a common-sense tool in keeping firearms out of the hands of those not permitted to possess them.
“Background checks are one of the most effective tools to keep guns out of the wrong hands, including convicted felons, domestic abusers and people who’ve been involuntarily committed,” said Roxane Weikel. “But loopholes in the system allow people who shouldn’t have guns to buy them without a background check.”
In the wake of last week’s mass shooting, both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines described the events as a tragedy. Tester urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call the Senate back to session to pass bipartisan background check legislation, saying “shootings like these have become all-too common and have no place in a civilized society.”
In Missoula last week, Daines defended his opposition to background checks, saying it would only provide a false sense of security and do little to address the problems facing the country.
“I’m concerned about some of the ideas I’m seeing, that there’s going to be more gun control,” Daines said in an interview with the Missoula Current. “I don’t think the answer is more gun control. We’re not going to be safer with more gun control. We’re going to be safer by addressing the core issue.”
Those gathered Saturday challenged Daines on his position on the issue, saying “perhaps he will find a measure of empathy” if pressed for solutions. A recent Fox News poll among Trump voters found that 90 percent of them supported universal background checks. Roughly 75 percent support red flag laws and 46 percent support an assault weapons ban.
The figures weren’t lost on John Moffatt, a former principal who experienced an episode of gun violence in a Montana school that left one teacher dead. In the years that have passed, he said, gun laws have grown lax under the lobby of the NRA while firearms have become increasingly lethal.
“The pendulum has swung toward laws that make access to weapons much easier,” he said. “The weapons themselves have become much more lethal. Nine lives in Dayton (Ohio) were lost in 30 seconds, a result of a military-grade weapon with a 100-round magazine designed not for hunting or target shooting, but to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.”
-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current