By Michael Howell
The Stevensville Town Council passed a new weapons ordinance on first reading a few weeks ago. A public hearing held last Thursday, April 25, however, drew a roomful of people, almost all of whom expressed concern that the new ordinance was too restrictive and urged the Council to reconsider it. At the regular Town Council meeting which followed, discussion centered on addressing the various objections heard at the public hearing as well as subsequent public comment at the Council meeting. In that process the Council considered and passed a few amendments before postponing the matter to the next council meeting so that the full council could participate. Councilor Robin Holcomb was absent from both the public hearing and the subsequent meeting.
The proposed changes to the existing ordinance governing the carrying of weapons would actually make it less restrictive. The current ordinance, as written, prohibits the carrying of concealed weapons anywhere within the Town limits. Period. It was identified in the current ordinance codification process, being spearheaded by councilor Ron Klaphake, as not being consistent with state law, which allows the carrying of concealed weapons except in certain establishments such as state or local government office buildings and financial institutions, or where alcoholic beverages are being sold, dispensed and consumed. “It is not a defense that the person has a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon.” (MCA 45-8-328).
State law also explicitly restricts a local government from regulating firearms, except, for public safety purposes, it may regulate the discharge of rifles, shotguns and handguns and it “has the power to prevent and suppress the carrying of concealed or unconcealed weapons to a public assembly, publicly owned building, park under its jurisdiction, or school, and the possession of firearms by convicted felons, adjudicated mental incompetents, illegal aliens and minors.” (MCA 45-8-351).
Based on that law, the new town ordinance proposes to prohibit the carrying of concealed or unconcealed weapons at public assemblies, in publicly owned buildings, in town parks and schools.
Many of the public speakers at the hearing and at the meeting were specifically critical of including the town parks and the school in the prohibition. The basic argument was over public safety. Critics of the prohibition claim that it is creating a free fire zone for crazies or fanatics. They claim the law doesn’t deter a criminal or the insane from carrying out their crimes but it will create an area where a criminal can go, knowing that they will not meet any armed resistance. Several people expressed the opinion that having law abiding, trained and permitted weapons carriers present at the parks and the schools would make them safer.
“There are evil people in the world with guns, “said Vernon Weiss. “Only a good person with a gun can stop them.”
A lot of the people attending the hearing and meeting were from out of town but feel affected by the prohibition because they visit town or work here. A few Ravalli County officials also showed up, including Commissioner Greg Chilcott, Sheriff Chris Hoffman, and County Attorney Bill Fulbright.
Chilcott said he believed it made sense to allow responsible, permitted people to carry concealed weapons in public places like parks.
“We have a pretty good process for concealed weapon permitting,” he said. “We are telling law abiding citizens that they can’t carry. We can do better than that. We are asking you to reconsider and work out a better approach to managing concealed carry.”
County Attorney Bill Fulbright said that he “echoed” Commissioner Chilcott’s concerns.” He said that state law makes an exception for persons with a concealed carry permit. He urged the Council not to pass the ordinance on second reading and fix it in a way that “it doesn’t hamstring everybody.”
County Sheriff Chris Hoffman said there was not much he could add. He urged the Council to take a careful look at whether the town’s police department could enforce the ordinance, “in a real sense and in an ethical and moral sense.”
“My office couldn’t enforce this ordinance,” said Hoffman. He said he was willing to help the Council work out an ordinance that did not infringe on law abiding rights.
Stevensville Police Chief James Marble said, “The issue being overlooked here is the 26-acre River Park. That area is of concern.” He said the area was hard to patrol and was the site of drug activity and assaults. He thought it made sense to let people carry concealed weapons for protection in that park.
Only one person, Amy Knight, spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying she was in favor of prohibiting guns in schools and parks.
Councilor Klaphake offered to amend the ordinance to clarify that guns were being prohibited in publicly owned “or leased” buildings. He also clarified the definitions of “public assembly” as the meeting of a government body, and schools as including the buildings and the grounds.
It was noted by Mayor Gene Mim Mack that the Stevensville School District currently follows federal rules which are more strict than the state laws. He said that the school has adopted federal policy and prohibits guns, whether or not concealed, from all school buildings and grounds and within 1,000 feet of the school grounds.
The federal Gun-Free Schools Act was passed in 1994 and repealed but re-enacted as part of the “No Child Left Behind” Act in 2002. It requires states receiving federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to have laws requiring local agencies to adopt a zero-tolerance policy with a mandatory expulsion of one year for any student who brings a firearm to school or possesses one there. The law, as amended, does allow the local educational authorities to modify the expulsion requirement on a case by case basis. It also further defines the term “school” to include school sponsored events and activities, “even those held off school grounds.”
In response to arguments that the town was removing the discretion of school districts to allow permitted concealed carriers if they wanted to deviate from state law, an amendment was passed to the prohibition on carrying concealed weapons in the schools, allowing that it was “subject to the School Board policies.” But in order to allow concealed carry on campus, the school board would have to rescind its policy adopting the federal rules and that would jeopardize federal funding.
The issue of prohibiting concealed weapons in the town parks was briefly discussed. None of the county officials present could say whether the City of Hamilton prohibited guns in its parks. County Attorney Fulbright said that based on a quick search on his computer that there was no firearm prohibition in the City codes. But a Town Councilor noted that the prohibition to carrying weapons in city parks was in the Hamilton Park Ordinance.
The Hamilton Park Ordinance states, “It is unlawful for any person to possess or use any type of weapon, bow and arrow, air gun, or firearm…within the boundaries of any city park or use any similar type weapon or instrument within a city park.”
Prior to addressing the objections to prohibiting the carrying of weapons in the town parks, a motion was made to postpone the meeting until Councilor Robin Holcomb, who was absent, could attend.
The meeting was postponed until May 23.
Two other proposed ordinances were heard at the public hearing and approved at the Council meeting.
One revised the Sidewalk Ordinance to provide for a cost share agreement with property owners who may be required to do any Town-mandated repairs or installations. Under the current ordinance, if the Town requires sidewalk repairs for safety reasons, the landowner is required to pay the cost. Under the new ordinance, the town will pay the first $250. If it costs more than that, the Town will pay 50% and the landowner 50%.
The Council also repealed rules that they considered antiquated which regulated mechanical amusement devices, public dance halls, taxicabs, and gaming licenses.