Someone’s going to get hurt: Knudsen playing a high-stakes game of partisan politics

August 19, 2021 4:42 am

Attorney General Austin Knudsen. (Provided by the Montana Attorney General’s Office for the Daily Montanan.)

In a stunning story by Lee Newspapers, Holly Michels reports that Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen ordered Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher to stop prosecuting a man whom Gallagher’s office says repeatedly hit a restaurant employee’s genitals and showed a concealed weapon, all because the restaurant had the audacity to require masking during a pandemic.

To make matters worse, when Michels asked the AG’s office about the incident, officials there tried to say that it was Gallagher who requested the help from the boys up the street at the Capitol. But Michels, a veteran reporter and editor, checked that story through public documents, and those showed that one of Knudsen’s top lieutenants, Derek Oestreicher, commanded Gallagher’s office to stop prosecution, turn over all the files, and submit to a review by the Attorney General’s Office.

In other words, the AG’s office didn’t just lie to Michels, they misled and mischaracterized the situation. And it’s not like Gallagher is some bumbling legal rookie – he’s been practicing law longer than Knudsen has been alive.

This type of overtly political behavior, which prizes politics above all else, is nothing new during Knudsen’s relatively short tenure of eight months. Remember, he’s the same attorney who has told the Montana Supreme Court he wouldn’t follow its advice, and the same one who is leading a nationwide charge to legalize bump stocks.

When I reached out to the AG’s office to try to understand its position, Knudsen’s spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell replied, “We aren’t going to participate in your liberal blog.”

Politics wins again, I suppose.

And that’s really the danger of the situation: That the administration of justice depends on your politics. The man accused of carrying a concealed weapon without a valid permit into an establishment where alcohol is served gets special treatment from the state attorney general, while an employee who was allegedly assaulted will likely get second-class treatment because he or she was just trying to protect customers and their communities.

And that’s why it’s important to recognize that what happened, if the court documents are true, should be anathema to any self-respecting conservative or gun owner. Assaulting an employee is wrong. Flashing a gun during an argument is inappropriate, if not illegal. And if a person disagrees with a business’s mask directive, then common sense suggests you leave.

For a party of law and order, and one that constantly preaches the wholesome image of responsible gun owners, this should be the perfect case for Knudsen to demonstrate just how tough and just his office can be by demanding that those who carry a gun use it responsibly.

Yet Knudsen and his allies in the Attorney General’s Office have confused enforcing the law with actually being the law.

For Republicans who seem to tout the goodness of local control, this case also stands out: It’s a matter of the state government intervening in a local matter in which the state surely doesn’t have a compelling interest. People who violate conceal carry laws and who commit assault are indeed and sadly legion. There are plenty of court cases throughout Montana that deal with either assault or weapons violations. And Gallagher and his office are beyond competent and need little help from the nannying of the attorney general.

Knudsen would do well to consider the different messages he’s sending. I am not so naïve as to believe this case wasn’t sucked up by Knudsen to use as a publicity gimmick during the next election or whatever office he’s cravenly set his sights on. Knudsen can thump his chest that he’s dropped charges against a man exercising his sacred Second Amendment rights against the liberal mongrels who tried to prevent personal responsibility in the midst of the greatest pandemic the world has seen in a century. Certainly, that will play well to the base who needs no convincing and even less political red-meat.

Yet Knudsen’s actions speak to more than just those who rabidly glom on to his right-wing positions. They signal to the rest of us that justice may be blind, but it’s not below being partisan. Our top law enforcement officer instead is backing a person who employed physical force and the specter of a gun to settle a dispute about masking. That’s like using TNT to weed your garden.

It also gives the impression that the government will stand on the side of bullies and those who demonstrate both machismo and use of force. It sides with those who place their own freedoms and their own demands above the health of a community. Standing up for the Second Amendment should also mean standing for those who understand the awesome power of gun is entirely inappropriate in an argument about paper masks.

Knudsen’s office also seems remarkably short-sighted here, too. Either it has considered the message this sends to everyone else – that if you use violence or a gun to threaten those who would dare to implement public health protocols, the government will back your menacing and possibly deadly actions – or it’s ridiculously short-sighted and hasn’t considered the dangerous precedent this case sets. Both are not good, and while Knudsen may be more full of political ambition than legal sense, I don’t believe he’s that naïve.

If the party that cherishes personal responsibility really believed so earnestly in that principle, then it would also have the courage of its convictions to believe that threatening others and using a gun in doing so deserves the kind of personal responsibility that comes with accepting the consequences for actions.

If our leaders don’t rise above the politics, someone is going to get hurt. And in a time of surging deaths due to COVID-19, that’s the last thing we need.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.