Proponents of Missoula’s legal effort to defend its gun background check ordinance see a local government reclaiming its constitutional powers from a state government that’s been bought off by a powerful gun lobby.
But to Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut, the lawsuit only confirms what he’s long believed: that local reformers are just carrying water for anti-gun activists in New York City who’ve identified Montana as their latest battleground.
On April 11, city leaders held a press conference to announce that they’d filed a legal challenge to a 2017 order by Attorney General Tim Fox that struck down the ordinance. Fox had argued that the ordinance mandating background checks on private gun sales violates a state “preemption” law that prohibits cities from enacting restrictions on gun ownership.
Anticipating criticism of a costly legal battle, Mayor John Engen and City Council President Bryan von Lossberg emphasized that the city had found a way to fight on a budget. Fees for local counsel Boone Karlberg would be capped at $25,000, while an attorney for gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety would provide pro bono support.
Everytown is a nonprofit founded in 2014 and financed primarily by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions into the group in an effort to counter the political power of the National Rifle Association.
The addition of Everytown as co-counsel on the Missoula case formalized a relationship that Marbut believes has existed quietly since the ordinance’s inception in 2015. Marbut points to emails he obtained through a public records request showing communication between von Lossberg and an Everytown attorney indicating that Everytown reviewed a draft ordinance before it was presented publicly and anticipated that it would lead to litigation.
“We don’t need the same kind of culture here that they need in New York City,” Marbut says. “They’re welcome to what they have, but they ought to leave us alone.”
Von Lossberg says the ordinance language had many influences, including exemptions carved out in response to opponents’ concerns. He says Everytown’s ability to join as co-counsel was a factor in the timing of the city’s legal challenge, but that “this business about out-of-state [influence] is a distraction from the core policy debate.”
State preemption laws are largely the product of a national lobbying campaign by the NRA that began in the 1980s. In recent years, Everytown has begun spending money in Montana, including $148,000 in lobbying over the last two state legislative sessions — far more than the NRA and MSSA combined.
The Missoula chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which approached von Lossberg with the idea for the ordinance, was founded in 2013 and is now affiliated with Everytown. Missoula Moms Demand activist Heidi Kendall says the idea for the ordinance grew “organically” from collective frustration at the unwillingness of state and national lawmakers to act.
“I don’t think we were like sitting ducks here, and someone was taking advantage of us,” Kendall says. “There was a lot of passion behind the idea.”