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Can a city pass its own gun reform in a politically red state?

Missoula, the heart of one of America's most pro-gun states, may require background checks on private gun sales

MISSOULA, Mont. – For Hayes Otoupalik, guns aren’t just a hobby. They’re a way of life.

The history buff has been trading and selling guns, both modern and relic, for most of his life. He’s also run the Missoula Gun Show, one of the oldest and largest in the country, for nearly 50 years without issue. 

But that was before near-daily mass shootings and rising rates of gun violence thrust the gun control debate back into the spotlight, even in Montana, one of the most pro-gun states in America.

Now, Otoupalik finds himself at the other end of a movement in Missoula that's taking on outdated gun laws through a city ordinance that would require background checks on all nearly private gun sales, including at gun shows – something not required by the state.

The weeks-long debate over the ordinance in Missoula could be a test as opinions on guns, in Montana and across the country, are shifting: Can a city pass gun reform in a politically red state?

Fifty-two percent of Americans say it’s more important to control who owns guns; 47 percent say it’s more important to protect the rights of those who own them.
America Tonight

New polls send a mixed message. The majority of Americans, like Otoupalik, support the National Rifle Association, according to Pew Research.  But most also say they want smarter gun laws, and 85 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. In Montana, which has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country, it can be a hard idea to sell.

But doing nothing in Montana, which has the sixth-highest rate of gun deaths in the country, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s annual report card, wasn’t good enough for Missoula residents like Heidi Kendall, a volunteer with Moms Demand with Moms Demand Action, one of the groups making a big push for the new ordinance.

“There's just a long history and an assumption that everyone has a gun, and there's a big focus on the Second Amendment and how important that is to daily life. But I don't quite see it the same way,” Kendall said. “You do what you can where you can. And it's not happening so far in Washington, D.C., and it's not happening so far in Helena, Montana, …so we operate in the sphere of influence that we have. And that is our city council in Missoula. They're listening.”

Montana’s state code allows local governments to enact laws that prevent minors, criminals, non-citizens and the mentally ill from getting a hold of guns. Kendall says the proposed ordinance in Missoula would do that. In a statement this week, police chiefs across the U.S. said they support universal background checks as well. 

At the state level, politicians like state Rep. Ellie Hill (D), have been trying for years to pass similar background check legislation, including a bill that would put the state in compliance with federal rules on mental health background checks. Hill, a gun owner, hasn’t gotten enough support to push anything through. This comes despite large pockets of support — including 82 percent of residents in Missoula County, the second-largest in Montana — for universal background checks among voters.

Why, then, has the state been reluctant to take another look at its laws? Hill blames the NRA, which, she says, has not only helped block her bills but has also helped expand access to guns.

“It’s not your grandfather's NRA anymore. It's not my father's NRA anymore,” Hill said. “When you're a state with only a million people, as large as the entire Northeast, then you're the cheapest date in town, right?  We're pretty easy to buy, pretty easy to pick.”

At an Oct. 19 Missoula City Council meeting, a spokesman for the NRA was given five minutes to testify, but declined America Tonight’s request for an interview.

They're standing up and they're rising, and they're saying … not in our town. Not in Missoula and not in Montana.

Montana Rep. Ellie Hill (D)

Critics like Otoupalik, who says he agrees with the NRA, are still fighting for changes to the ordinance. They echo the results of the latest Gallup poll on crime, which shows that while most people support background checks, most also aren't sure that any one single law will reduce the number of mass shootings. And 56 percent of those surveyed say they believe they'd safer if more Americans were allowed to carry concealed weapons.

Otoupalik, once a federally licensed firearms dealer, says background checks can often come back with red flags even if a person is never prosecuted for a crime. He recalled one man whose wife won a restraining order against him during a messy divorce, which he failed to report on his gun application because no charges were ever brought against him.

Otoupalik and others put forward several amendments for consideration at a city council meeting this week: an exemption for those who already have concealed carry permits and another for the transfer of guns to those under 18, according to The Missoulan.

“Sometimes, you have to protect yourself from your own government,” Otoupalik told America Tonight. “Governments are dangerous to their own people.”

It’s not clear when city officials will vote on the ordinance. But Hill says the tide is changing in Montana.

“When you have kids dying in preschools, in kindergartens, then you have moms and dads and folks that aren't single-issue voters that are caring very deeply about this issue,” Hill said. “They're standing up and they're rising, and they're saying, ‘Not in our town. Not in Missoula and not in Montana.’”

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