Gov. Greg Gianforte signed Thursday legislation that greatly increases the places in Montana where people can carry concealed firearms without permits.
“Every law-abiding Montanan should be able to defend themselves and their loved ones,” Gianforte said at the signing ceremony. “That’s why today I’m signing HB102 into law.”
The governor said Montanans deserve the right to defend themselves, especially because the new administration of Democrat U.S. President Joe Biden was calling on Congress to pass “anti-gun laws” mandating universal background checks and banning semiautomatic weapons.
Similar bills to HB102 died in the past in Montana, at least once by veto from a Democrat governor, but Gianforte is the first Republican in that seat in 16 years.
Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, served as lead sponsor of the bill, with 37 other lawmakers signing on as co-sponsors. Berglee, in a face mask with a firearm and the message, “Come and Take It,” said the Second Amendment has long been a priority for Montana Republicans.
The bill would allow people to carry concealed firearms with the same amount of training and in the same areas people already can open carry, he said, and it also “erases the invisible line around our colleges.” Generally, he said it aligns with Montana’s history of independence and self sufficiency.
“The idea of self-defense has been a pillar in our society since even before the founding of our country,” Berglee said. “It’s a right that’s given by God, granted in the Constitution.”
Most of the law takes effect upon its passage; the portion that deals with the Montana University System will take effect June 1, 2021. With some exceptions, the law also prohibits the Montana Board of Regents from enforcing any regulation “that diminishes or restricts the rights of the people to keep or bear arms.” The regents oversee the university system and all its campuses.
At the signing ceremony, Gov. Gianforte did not take questions. He said he had taken press questions the previous day and would take questions the following day, but he did not have time to take questions then due to his travel schedule.
In written responses to the Daily Montanan’s questions, governor spokesperson Brooke Stroyke addressed the allowance of concealed firearms in places where alcohol is permitted, such as bars.
“HB 102 allows the concealed carrying of firearms without a permit in places where open carry is already allowed, including bars and restaurants,” Stroyke said. “HB 102’s permitless carry system updates Montana law to provide a safer and less provocative way to carry firearms than is allowed under existing open carry laws.”
Additionally, she said existing law prohibits the concealed carrying of a gun while intoxicated but allows Montanans to open carry “while even severely intoxicated. By moving Montanans toward permitless concealed carry, HB102 encourages safe and responsible firearm handling.” She also noted any private property owner can choose to prohibit the carrying of firearms at their home, business, place of worship, or private property.
The Governor’s Office did not address the safety of firearms on college campuses, where alcohol is often present, or the potential cost to taxpayers of a court challenge. The response also did not address whether Gianforte would support any limits on concealed gun carry, but in his remarks, the governor said he has been clear that protecting gun rights is part of his Comeback Plan.
Democrats have opposed the bill, citing safety concerns, Montana’s high suicide rate, and the danger of firearms in places alcohol is available, among other objections. In a statement provided via a spokesperson, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said opponents had called for safety.
“Educators, gun owners, bankers and law enforcement officials came in to oppose this bill because it makes our communities and our campuses less safe,” said Abbott, D-Helena. “Our focus should be on policies that make our communities safer and supporting the professionals that help ensure they are.”
The legislation is billed as enhancing people’s safety “by expanding their legal ability to provide for their own defense by reducing or eliminating government-mandated places where only criminals are armed and where citizens are prevented from exercising their fundamental right to defend themselves and others.”
Research does not support the theory that more guns increase safety. However, many Republican legislators have touted their abilities to protect themselves with firearms as a sovereign right, and Gianforte shared a couple of stories where law-abiding citizens stopped a shooter from murdering more people at a scene.
At the West Freeway Church of Christ in Texas in 2019, he said congregants noticed something was off about one man. After communion, the man pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, opened fire, and killed two church goers. Six seconds later, he said Jack Wilson, member of a volunteer security team, drew his pistol and killed the perpetrator before the criminal could shoot even more people.
“Jack Wilson is a hero,” Gianforte said.
The law also places prohibitions on the Montana Board of Regents, made up of seven members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The Montana Constitution notes the regents have “full power, responsibility, and authority to supervise, coordinate, manage and control the Montana university system.”
An analysis of the bill by the Montana Legislature’s legal staff noted the law could conflict with the Montana Constitution and powers of the Board of Regents: “According to the Montana Supreme Court, this constitutional provision grants a high degree of independence and autonomy to the Board of Regents, subject only to the Legislature’s power of appropriation.”
Thursday, Board of Regents Chair Casey Lozar did not respond to a question about whether he was comfortable with the prohibitions of power the law was placing on the body. The Daily Montanan requested comment via email and voicemail. Regents have in recent months directed questions to the Commissioner’s Office.
In an email, deputy commissioner Kevin McRae said he was the spokesperson for House Bill 102. McRae had lobbied against the bill, and in a January board meeting, Regent Martha Sheehy, a lawyer, raised concerns about the bill’s effects on the board’s constitutional obligation to oversee campuses. Thursday, McRae said no court challenge is in the offing.
“There are no plans at this time to discuss or pursue a legal challenge,” McRae said in an email.
He also said higher education officials were grateful for some amendments they believe improved the bill. The bill limits the power of the regents, but makes exceptions for them to regulate “the possession of a firearm at an event on campus where campus authorities have authorized alcohol to be served and consumed” and at “an athletic or entertainment event open to the public with controlled access and armed security on site.”
“First, the Board of Regents will be discussing and probably making decisions on campus firearms policy at the May board meeting,” McRae said. “Second, keeping our campuses safe places to teach, learn, live and grow is our highest priority.”
Finance reports due this week with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices showed proponents of gun rights and proponents of gun safety both spent money from Jan. 1 to Jan. 31 lobbying the Montana Legislature.
Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund spent $38,152, the most of any lobbying group, according to the reports filed online. (The Commissioner of Political Practices noted some lobbying groups submit only paper copies.)
The National Association for Gun Rights spent $23,749 in the initial reporting period. And the National Rifle Association spent $8,390. (The National Shooting Sports Foundation is listed in the report but as having no expenditures.)
This story has been updated to correct the effective date of the law and to include responses provided by the Governor’s Office to the Daily Montanan’s questions after publication.