HELENA — Gun advocates on Wednesday pitched a slate of measures aimed at making concealed carry much easier, and striking some of the places where weapons are prohibited.
It was the second day in a row where gun rights dominated the House Judiciary Committee. Many of the proposals return from past sessions where they failed, including a couple of bills that again brought criticism that they are unconstitutional efforts to undermine federal law.
Supporters said they are needed to correct past mistakes on gun restrictions, some of which they argued date back to prohibition-era gangster policies.
"Am I going to get all of these? No," said Republican Rep. Krayton Kerns, a Laurel veterinarian who chairs the committee. "But I think we will advance some things a bit down the liberty scale."
One of the measures allows concealed carry of weapons by anyone who would qualify for a permit under federal guidelines. People who determine themselves qualified would be exempt from having to actually get a permit.
Supporters pointed out that concealed carry is currently allowed by anyone outside of city limits, a policy they said has worked.
"I think it is time to recognize the city cousins are just as good as the country cousins," said Gary Marbut, with the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
Opponents included law enforcement groups who argued that the current system — which requires a sheriff to approve the permit — does a good job of helping ensure that mentally unstable people or troublemakers in the community don't get a permit. They argued that the proposal would render the permit system useless and make it difficult for police to determine who is allowed to be carrying guns.
Another proposal would allow concealed guns in currently prohibited places like bars and public buildings. Supporters said Montana law currently allows open carry of guns into such places — but bans the concealed carry that is far less disruptive.
"If you think open carry is safer in those places, and concealed carry is a crime, I will not be able to explain this bill to you," Kerns said.
A prosecutor and lobbyist for law enforcement groups said the measures are being driven by an unfounded fear of violence from strangers. Mark Murphy said most violent crimes and murders in Montana are committed by family members and acquaintances — and that won't be solved, for instance, by letting more people secretly bring guns into bars.
"We've never met a bar fight that got better by adding more guns," Murphy said.
Another proposal heard Wednesday would allow the use of silencers while hunting big game, which drew more opposition than a different proposal that would allow the silencers while hunting predators.
Supporters argued that the silencers only make the rifle quieter and safer on the ears to use, with one calling the ban a "Nazi" and "fascist" law. A similar measure allowing the silencers in Wyoming is headed to the governor's desk after clearing the Wyoming Legislature. Opponents, including wildlife officials, said the silencers would make poaching and trespassing easier.
Several measures considered a day earlier drew stronger criticism.
They included a proposal to let Montana public college students bring firearms to campus, which supporters said would let people protect themselves from criminals who seek out "gun-free" zones. Opponents said guns on campuses would lead to far more problems than they solve.
Another proposal would bar state law enforcement agencies from enforcing any possible future federal bans on semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines, a response to calls in Washington, D.C. for an assault weapon ban. Another would declare federal law enforcement agents subservient to local sheriffs, seeking to require the federal agents to get local permission before making arrests or issuing warrants.
"Once again we have the same platform of bills that we saw last session that are patently unconstitutional," said Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula. "Yet here they are still trying to nullify federal law and make our sheriffs the supreme law of land."