HELENA — The Montana House on Tuesday rejected a proposal to name the Winchester Model 1873 the state rifle after Native American legislators said they couldn't honor a weapon that brought "devastation" to their ancestors.
Supporters said the designation was intended to memorialize an important symbol from the frontier era that led to statehood for Montana. They tried to mollify opponents by striking language from the bill that called the Winchester the "gun that won the West."
Rep. Edward Greef, a Florence Republican carrying the measure, noted the Winchester rifle was used by American Indians during their victory at the Battle of The Little Bighorn — although he said the focus should not be on who used the rifle to shot whom.
The gun was "readily available on the frontier and became hugely popular," according to the bill.
"The rifle is a symbol of this historical era," Greef said. "I urge you not to look at the rifle as a weapon, but as a symbol of a place in time."
But the measure was defeated 61-39 in the Republican-led House after Native American lawmakers from the Democratic side of the aisle said the gun still carries bad memories. They argued the lever-action repeating rifle, which could fire rounds more quickly than other models, helped slaughter bison relied upon for food, and was involved in Indian massacres.
State Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez said the stories of women and children being shot still resonate in Indian country.
"For me this is not so much in the past," she said. "I must rise in opposition of celebrating such a weapon as this that brought devastation to my people."
The chamber on Tuesday endorsed a more modern gun measure, voting 68-32 to allow the use of rifle silencers while hunting wolves after the end of the general elk and deer season.
Supporters say said ownership of silencers is highly regulated by the federal government, ensuring against abuse, and argued they would make for a quieter hunting experience. Opponents unsuccessfully argued that landowners should be able to hear where shots are being fired from.