HELENA — As new gun laws are considered in the wake of recent mass shootings, the debate over such proposals in Montana is ramping up.
One state senator has claimed that gangs of thieves are stalking gun owners, and a state representative is moving to resist any attempt to ban assault rifles.
Their positions come as President Barack Obama recently announced a sweeping package of executive orders and congressional requests aimed at curbing gun violence, proving unpopular in pro-gun places such as Montana.
Similar proposals that would require more background checks and ban both military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines are expected to be discussed in state Legislatures across the nation.
Supporters say such gun control measures are needed to help prevent shooting rampages, such as the attacks at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Critics, however, see the plans as intrusions on their Second Amendment rights to bear arms that would leave them defenseless in the face of threats.
In Montana, as the legislative session gets under way, a new package of pro-gun proposals is in the works and few lawmakers are standing in open opposition, although some Democrats aren't closing the door on the idea.
"I am paying close attention to what people are saying," said Minority House Leader Chuck Hunter in an interview with The Associated Press at the start of the session.
"At the political level, I have not decided what we should do," he said.
One of the first bills heard by the Montana Legislature would make confidential the addresses of people who hold permits for concealed weapons.
The concern is that releasing such information would make gun owners targets of crime, a common refrain following last month's move by the Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., to publish names and addresses of gun permit owners.
Terry Murphy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, went further, however, and claimed in a public hearing before the panel that the burglaries have actually been happening.
"There has been a rash of people targeting these homes, just putting them under watch until nobody is home and stealing guns and using them in other crimes," said Murphy, a Democrat-turned-Republican farmer from Cardwell.
Murphy backtracked afterward in an interview, saying it was a mistake perhaps due to misinterpretation of some Internet articles discussing the possibility of such crimes. He said the bill is still needed — and that it is being rewritten to make it stronger.
The new version will also make confidential the permit holders' names, and not just their personal information.
"What we do know has happened is the publication of the names, which I think most people find inappropriate," Murphy said.
The National Rifle Association is backing the bill, also arguing that gun owners could be targets for thieves looking for firearms.
Recent research, however, shows that the crime can go down — instead of up — when permit owner names are publicized.
A 2010 study done after a Memphis, Tenn., newspaper published a database of conceal-carry gun permit holders found burglaries decreased in zip codes with more gun permits — and increased in zip codes with fewer gun permits.
"We also find no evidence that publishing the identities of gun permit holders led to a relative increase in crimes aimed at stealing their weapons," wrote Carnegie Melon professor Alessandro Acquisti and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Catherine Tucker in the 2010 "Guns, Privacy and Crime" study.
Murphy, however, said he thinks his bill has a good chance at passage — as do several others being drafted this session.
Another Montana bill in the works would prohibit state law enforcement from enforcing any federal ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. The proposal is directed squarely at Obama's call to restrict assault rifle sales.
Republican House Judiciary Chairman Krayton Kerns of Laurel said he believes he has strong support among lawmakers and among the public, in part prompted by the publicity from a similar bill in the Wyoming Legislature.
"Our fundamental right of self-defense is under assault, and we have to stand up. The federal government is delving off into things they have no authority to under the Second Amendment," Kerns said.
Kerns is among a group of pro-gun lawmakers who think the president's call for more controls requires state pushback. He also plans to take another proposal straight to the voters that would require federal agents to receive written permission from the local sheriff before they can make an arrest, serve a warrant or seize property in that sheriff's county.
A similar proposal failed to pass the Legislature in 2011, with state and federal officials testifying it would impede investigations and strain relations between law enforcement agencies.
Other proposals in the state seek to revive failed pro-gun measures from last year's legislative session, such as allowing silencers while hunting and allowing anyone to carry a concealed weapon without a permit as long as they would otherwise be qualified to do so under the permit process.
On Monday, Rep. Jerry O'Neil, R-Columbia Falls, is going to committee with his longshot proposal to seek an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that he hopes would limit the federal government's ability to regulate guns under the Commerce Clause.
Another measure being drafted would let students legally bring hunting rifles to school without fear of expulsion, a nod to the NRA's position that gun-free zones don't make people safer.
"The fundamental question that policymakers have to get to is: 'What is the problem?'" said Brian Judy, NRA's lobbyist for Montana.
The common pro-gun argument also prompted a bill being drafted that would limit the ability of local governments to ban guns in public buildings.
Roughly 100 people gathered at the Capitol on Saturday to protest the Obama proposal, and to argue issues like violence in movies and mental illness are reasons for the mass shootings.
"The liberals are taking advantage of this and they want to use this as a pretext for taking our guns," former Republican candidate for governor Neil Livingstone told the crowd.
Gov. Steve Bullock hasn't said how he would react to specific gun proposals. He said, however, during an interview this month that he won't be pushing any specific proposals.
"Certainly, access to firearms is part of the discussion, but there are other aspects of that discussion," he said, "such as mental illness and how we enforce the laws that are currently on the books."