By Michael Howell
At its regular meeting last Thursday, May 23, the Stevensville Town Council approved on second reading an ordinance amending the municipal code governing weapons. One impetus to amend the ordinance was that the forty-year old weapons ordinance on the books is not being enforced and is probably not enforceable as it violates the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms and is not congruent with current state law, according to Councilor Ron Klaphake, who helped author the new ordinance. The old ordinance prohibits the carrying of concealed weapons anywhere in the town limits.
State law imposes some restrictions on carrying weapons. Carrying a concealed weapon is prohibited, including “a dirk, dagger, pistol, revolver, slingshot, sword cane, billy, knuckles made of any metal or hard surface, knife having a blade 4 inches long or longer, razor, not including safety razor, or other deadly weapon.” (45-8-316 MCA) It is punishable by a fine of not more than $500 or up to 6 months in jail, or both. There are exceptions to the prohibition, including several different law officers and public officials and citizens who have been issued a “concealed carry permit” by the local Sheriff.
Carrying concealed weapons is also prohibited in certain places by state law, whether the person possesses a concealed carry permit or not. It is prohibited in “portions of a building used for state or local government offices and related areas in the building that have been restricted; in a bank credit union, savings and loan institution, or similar institution during the institution’s normal business hours.” (Exceptions to this are an institution’s drive-up window, automatic teller machine, or unstaffed nightly depository or at a mall, grocery store, or other place that houses a financial service unless the person is inside the enclosure used for that service). It is also prohibited to carry a concealed weapon, whether licensed to carry a concealed weapon or not, into a “room in which alcoholic beverages are sold, dispensed, and consumed under a license issued under Title 16 for the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises.” For all of these offenses, “it is not a defense that the person had a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon.” (45-8-328)
State law also specifically places restrictions on local governments such as counties, cities, and towns. They “may not prohibit, register, tax, license, or regulate the purchase, sale or other transfer (including delay in purchase, sale or other transfer), ownership, possession, transportation, use, or unconcealed carrying of any weapon, including a rifle, shotgun, handgun, or concealed handgun.” (45-8-351)
But the same state law immediately makes an exception to those restrictions, allowing “for public safety purposes, a city or town may regulate the discharge of rifles, shotguns, and handguns” and “a county, city or town, consolidated local government, or other local government unit has 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.”
Stevensville’s newly adopted Weapons Ordinance exercises those powers and prohibits the carrying of weapons concealed or unconcealed in buildings owned by the town and at any public assembly, that is, any official meeting of the town government wherever it takes place.
The draft ordinance first considered prohibited carrying weapons at the school but was amended on first reading to state that the town will follow whatever regulations are adopted by the School Board of Trustees. Currently the Stevensville School District has adopted federal weapons regulations on campus that are stricter than state laws. It was noted that if the school board should ever adopt different regulations that the town would change their ordinance to match the school district’s.
The amended ordinance, which originally prohibited the carrying of weapons, concealed or unconcealed, in the town parks, was amended on second reading to prohibit weapons in all the town parks except for River Park where the carrying of weapons would be allowed. Police Chief James Marble had urged the Council to consider such an amendment because of the park’s size, 26 acres, its remoteness from town and its secluded, wooded terrain. He noted wild animals use the park such as a recent bear that was sighted there and the park has also been used for drug activity. He thought it made sense to allow citizens the protection of carrying a weapon in that particular park, concealed or unconcealed, and the Council agreed.
A few members of the audience in the packed town hall expressed support for the ordinance. A lot more spoke against it. Several simply stated that they thought it was unconstitutional. Others said that law abiding citizens who have the right to carry a weapon and even a permit to carry concealed should not be penalized. Several said that the ordinance did not enhance public safety but reduced it. They argued that allowing armed citizens in the park would make it safer. A few threatened to take their business out of town if the council passed the ordinance. Most of the people spoke with a great deal of passion.
“An armed community is a safe community,” said one man and drew a round of applause.
Councilor Robin Holcomb said that she had been doing some soul searching and that she believed the council should get rid of the ordinance completely and just go by state law. She moved to “abolish Ordinance 139” calling it a “sensitive issue.” The motion died for lack of a second.
Councilor Klaphake said that the real issue was the parks and he offered an amendment to allow guns to be carried in River Park. The amendment passed on a 3 to 1 vote with Councilor Holcomb dissenting. The ordinance as amended was then approved also on a 3 to 1 vote with Holcomb dissenting.
Many of those people opposed to the ordinance paused at the doorway as they were leaving and made comments to the Council.
“You thumbed your nose at us, I’m taking my business elsewhere,” said one man.
“I just hope God will protect you because none of us can anymore,” said another.
In other business the Council:
• approved an extension of the Final Plat approval for Phase I of Twin Creeks subdivision;
• approved the transfer of $190 in grant funds to pay the building permit fee for the Clothes Closet remodel;
• approved the transfer of $250 in grant funds to reduce the permit fee for the Genesis House variance to move its garage. The variance filing fee was $450;
• approved a Girl Scout Troop request to put up a flagpole in Father Ravalli Park;
• approved the issuance of 189 one-day swim passes for 4th to 6th grade students in the Stevensville School District. Last year 190 tickets were issued but only 40 were used;
• approved a fee reduction for swimming lessons for the children of up to 20 Head Start families, reducing the fees from $55 to $20. Councilor Desera Towle said that what made her willing to err on the side of generosity was that teaching young children to swim was a great public service and could save lives;
• approved the vacating of a small strip of land along the school property on 3rd Street;
• approved a paying out of employee comp time;
• approved the purchase of two thermal imaging cameras for the Fire Department;
• approved on first reading an animal regulation ordinance allowing rabbits, chickens and ducks, while describing nuisance and other provisions. The ordinance passed on a 3 to 1 vote with Councilor Robin Holcomb dissenting;
• approved on first reading an ordinance incorporating various airport ordinances, resolutions, and policies into an Airport Municipal Code;
• approved a contract amendment for the airport hangar survey;
• approved making a grant application to the FAA for an Environmental Assessment;
• approved making an application for a planning grant for an Airport Tax Increment District;
• approved a resolution of intent to annex the Stevensville well field property adjacent to Twin Creeks Subdivision into the town;
• approved the Mayor’s appointment of Brad Pollman to the Planning and Zoning Board;
• approved making a COPS grant application for a School Resource Officer at Stevensville Schools. If granted and accepted by the Town, the grant would pay 75% of the salary of an SRO for three years and the Town would be required to pay the full amount for the fourth year. The cost is estimated to be around $48,500 the first year and increase annually to around $53,200 by the fourth year.
According to Chief James Marble, the Stevensville School superintendent has made a verbal commitment that the school district would fund 50% of the Town’s financial match requirement. So, the estimated actual annual cost to the Town and the school district would be about $6062 each for the first year, increasing to $26,600 each by the fourth year.