Montana finance industry opposes firearms ‘discrimination’ bill, Attorney General supports

By: - February 22, 2023 5:20 pm

Gun illustration (Photo by Aristide Economopoulos for States Newsroom).

A customer forgot a firearm at a business last week, and the business was disappointed with the irresponsible conduct, said Charles Robison, with the Montana Chamber of Commerce. 

Now, that business is considering putting up a “No weapons” sign to avoid similar problems in the future.

“Should a business like this lose the right to compete for state contracts?” said Robison (he didn’t name the business; avoiding proper names is protocol in committee).

Robison shared the anecdote Wednesday in testimony against Senate Bill 361, largely opposed by the finance industry in Montana.

Sponsored by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, SB 361 aims to prohibit “discrimination concerning firearms” against people or businesses by financial institutions and in state contracts.

As proposed, any entity wanting a license to offer credit or financial services in Montana would have to file a certificate with the Secretary of State’s Office pledging it does not discriminate based on firearms.

Contractors that want to do business with the state for agreements of $100,000 or more also would be required to file a certificate.

Additionally, the bill would stop the state Board of Investments from any deals with any company that hasn’t provided a certificate of nondiscrimination— a requirement Board of Investments Executive Director Dan Villa said companies are highly unlikely to meet.

“Apple is not going to file a certificate of nondiscrimination in the state of Montana, but they still receive funds from the state of Montana through the investments of the state,” said Villa, opposing the bill.

Wednesday, the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee heard that bill and one other dealing with firearms, Senate Bill 359. The latter aims to stop financial institutions, such as credit card companies, from tracking gun purchases.

No one testified against SB 359, sponsored by Sen. Terry Vermeire, R-Anaconda, and the committee passed it in a 9-1 vote, with Sen. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, in opposition.

In testimony, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen spoke in support of both bills, as did the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

Four days ago, Knudsen said, Reuters reported Discover Financial Services will allow the tracking of purchases at gun retailers. Knudsen said he’s giving Discover credit for being open about its plans, but he doesn’t like the outcome.

“The only reason that these companies would do that is so they can coordinate with a governmental entity to track firearm purchases of citizens in this country,” Knudsen said. “ … I think that’s a violation of their constitutional rights.”

(The Reuters story said Discover will use a new merchant code for gun retailers, but the code doesn’t show specific purchases. It said the issue has raised privacy concerns among Republicans, but Democrats believe it will help financial institutions investigate gun violence.)

Knudsen also testified in support of SB 361, to prevent discrimination. He said he has received reports of businesses being denied access to credit because of their stance on the Second Amendment.

On the other hand, Knudsen said he, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, and the state Department of Commerce have worked hard to recruit firearms companies to Montana, and he doesn’t want them to face discrimination in Montana.

“This is a matter of good business,” Knudsen said of the bill.

Lisa Bennett, of Carbon County, said she doesn’t sell firearms, but she’s in the hunting industry, which does rely on firearms. She doesn’t want Montana to do business with any banks or corporations that undermine the Second Amendment.

“Perhaps Montana can lead as a state and lead other states to do the same thing,” Bennett said, in support of the legislation.

But along with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Bankers Association, Montana Credit Union, and the American Property and Casualty Insurance Association said the bill poses numerous problems. The committee didn’t take immediate action on SB 361. 

Cary Hegreberg, CEO of the Montana Bankers Association, said he’s a firearms enthusiast who likes to shoot. He said his fear in dying is that his wife “will sell all of my guns for what I told her I paid for them.”

That said, Hegreberg argued the bill lacks specificity in places, and it hurts the ability of banks to lend to creditworthy customers. He asked several questions about the certificate: Is it a one-time filing? An annual one? How often is it reviewed?

The bill says an injured party can go to court, and “with all due respect” to the attorney general, Hegreberg said he wondered how the provision could be enforced: “What constitutes injury?”

For example, take a pawn shop that handles guns but doesn’t pay its bills, Hegreberg said. If it asks a bank for a loan, and the bank decides it’s bad business to make that loan, can the pawn shop sue for discrimination?

Hegreberg said other questions follow: What does injunctive relief look like? Could a judge force the bank to make a loan? Under what terms? Does the court dictate the interest rate, for example?

“Banks want their customers to prosper and succeed, including firearms businesses, but banks don’t want government telling them who they should and shouldn’t do business with,” Hegreberg said.

He said he doesn’t know of any bank in Montana that directly or indirectly discriminates against the firearms industry, and the bill would offer that industry “unique protected status.” He offered an assessment of the legislation in general.

“This bill is trying to make a statement rather than solve a problem,” he said.

Robison, with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said the bill also clashes with legislation passed last session, House Bill 102. That law protects the rights of property owners to prohibit firearms on their premises, he said, but SB 361 would undo that protection.

However, Gary Marbut, with the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said it was time for the state to tackle significant firearms legislation, and he testified in support of both bills.

Marbut said in the last 30 years, the legislature has adopted 70 pro-gun bills, but many were “low-hanging fruit.” He praised the bill taking on the broad issue of discrimination.

A few months ago, Marbut said a small business owner told him his insurance was canceled after he filled out a survey and said he didn’t ban firearms on his premises.

“So I know this can be a problem,” Marbut said.

Last week, the House passed a separate bill, House Bill 356, against “firearm discrimination.” Sponsored by Rep. Brandon Ler, R- Savage, and also supported by Knudsen, that bill says the state may not contract with companies that “discriminate against entities or firearm trade associations.” 

Reporter Nicole Girten contributed to this story.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.