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Lawsuit challenges ballot language on Montana gun measure

August 2, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A half-dozen organizations sued the Montana attorney general on Friday over the wording of a ballot referendum meant to limit local governments’ ability to enact their own gun restrictions.

The groups say in their petition to the Montana Supreme Court that the ballot statement that voters would see in the 2020 election is misleading and doesn’t provide a true, impartial or fair explanation of what Legislative Referendum 130 would actually do.

“It instead masks the true purpose of LR-130,” attorney Jonathan Motl wrote in the lawsuit.

He said the referendum is intended to prevent local governments from enacting rules to expand background checks.

John Barnes, a spokesman for state Attorney General Tim Fox, did not return a call for comment.

Federal law requires background checks on guns bought from licensed dealers but not those purchased in private sales, online or at gun shows.

In 2016, Missoula passed an ordinance requiring background checks for all gun purchases in the city.

After the ordinance passed, Fox issued a legal opinion that said Missoula didn’t have the authority to enact the rules. A district judge overruled Fox last year and reinstated the ordinance, and an appeal is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers led an effort to repeal parts of the state law that was used to justify the Missoula background check rules. They decided to send the measure straight to voters to bypass a veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

They want to eliminate local governments’ ability to regulate the carrying of concealed weapons and the ability of a city or town to regulate the possession of firearms by convicted felons, mentally incompetent people, minors and people in the country illegally.

The measure also would eliminate cities’ and towns’ ability to regulate weapons carried at public assemblies, in parks and in schools.

On the ballot, those changes will be summarized for voters in a statement with a limit of 135 words. Fox’s office approved a 116-word ballot statement that is now subject of the lawsuit.

Missoula, along with the Montana League of Cities and Towns, a labor union, a school board association, a human rights group and a gun safety organization said in their lawsuit that Fox’s ballot statement doesn’t adequately describe the proposal’s primary purposes.

The statement doesn’t mention the measure would curtail background checks on private gun sales, even though four of the plaintiffs asked Fox to include it, the lawsuit said.

Also, there is no disclosure in the ballot statement that local governments would no longer have the ability to regulate the carrying of weapons at assemblies, parks or schools, what Motl called “gun safety flash points of local government concern.”

The ballot language also doesn’t mention that schools are “local governments” under Montana law, and would be subject to the changes, the plaintiffs said.

Fox’s office will have the opportunity to respond to the allegations in the lawsuit before the court takes any action.

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