Editors note – the following is an letter from Gary Marbut, President of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
An open letter to the city councilors of Billings, Helena, Bozeman, and other Montana communities.
As the November election approaches, you may have some thoughts about LR-130, the legislative referendum to restrain local governments from enacting and enforcing a patchwork of gun control across Montana.
If you want to blame someone for LR-130, blame the California transplants on the Missoula City Council for trying to impose their California ideas on Montana. And, blame them also for listening to the gun control advocacy of Michael Bloomberg of New York City. We warned them that their run at local gun control was a really bad idea. We tried to steer them off, but to no avail.
They had the bit firmly in their teeth and were determined to show us rubes in Montana a better way – the California way and New York way. That led to LR- 130 as surely as fall leads to winter.
Since our dismissed warning to Missoula led to LR-130, allow me to offer another caution in hopes it will head off further possible trouble.
In thinking about what may be done about LR-130, there may arise a suggestion or temptation to appropriate public funds to advertise or foster opposition. Please be advised that use of public resources to take sides in an election is absolutely forbidden, in several different ways.
In addition to forbidding state laws, federal courts have identified two relevant principles:
1. Equal stake doctrine. Both the proponents and opponents of an issue to be decided by the electorate at a ballot have an equal stake in any public funds used to advertise that issue. Therefore any public funds used for that purpose must be done in a way that is neutral or balanced. Public funds may not be used to take one side.
2. Lack of authority. It can be no proper part of the authority of a legislative body, such as a city council or county commission, to appropriate public funds to take sides in an election. Therefore, any such use of public funds amounts to simple theft from the public treasury.
The federal courts feel strongly about these principles. A school superintendent in Colorado used school resources to campaign against a ballot issue there. A lawsuit was filed in federal court over that transgression. Ultimately, a federal judge ordered school and city officials to reimburse the public treasury for funds used illegally to take sides in an election. (Campbell v. Araphoe County School. Dist. No. 6, subsequently affirmed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals).
Please note that it was not the taxpayers who ultimately paid this bill, the reimbursement of the public treasury, but the individual officials who made the decision to illegally use public funds to take sides in an election.
We hope that foreknowledge will help you if the suggestion comes up to use any public funds or public resources to oppose (or even support) LR-130.
So, if you think LR-130 is problematic, thank members of the Missoula City Council for kicking that particular hornet’s nest, against Montana advice. And, please remember the caution against use of any public resources to take sides in elections.
President Montana Shooting Sports Association
Author, Gun Laws of Montana