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Originally published Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 3:05 PM

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Gun bill's clear path hits growing opposition

Opposition is growing to the more gung-ho of the Montana bills aiming to expand gun rights — and even fracturing the membership of the National Rifle Association.

Associated Press Writer

HELENA, Mont. —

Opposition is growing to the more gung-ho of the Montana bills aiming to expand gun rights — and even fracturing the membership of the National Rifle Association.

But the NRA promised to make House Bill 228 a priority for the session and galvanize its membership to push the measure.

House Bill 228 would let people carry concealed weapons inside city limits — even without a permit to do so. It also makes certain that everyone has the right to self defense without an obligation to first run away.

Police officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee that NRA does not speak for them when it supports loosening Montana gun laws.

The measure fairly easily passed the House last month with relatively little formal opposition. It received a Senate hearing Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday said they will make changes to the bill, and sent it to a special subcommittee to iron out differences. One area of particular concern allows people to brandish a firearm if they feel threatened.

"It's our most important bill of the session," NRA regional lobbyist Brian Judy said in an interview. "NRA members will be apprised of developments."

That means lawmakers can expect a steady stream of e-mails from gun rights advocates. And Judy said the measure will be used to help craft the NRA scorecard so important to many Montana politicians.

Police officers — touting their own NRA credentials — said the bill goes too far and creates loopholes for criminals.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said the NRA does not speak for every member. His opposition stems from a "fear of armed criminals," he said.

Police and prosecutor organizations said suspect characters who could be denied concealed-carry permits under current law will be allowed to carry under the proposal and police couldn't do anything about it.

"It will only allow criminals to conceal their intent," Muir said.

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Great Falls Police Officer Jesse Slaughter said he is an NRA member and a staunch supporter of gun rights. But he said the proposal as written has several problems.

He pointed out that a police officer needs a good reason to brandish a weapon and must do so in very specific ways. Slaughter said citizens will have no such rules and will be brandishing guns in all sorts of inappropriate ways.

Prosecutors and the office of Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock opposed the bill as well.

Judy said NRA members who don't like the organization's positions, or its support of this bill, are free to quit their membership. He said no one would be kicked out.

Judy also said the NRA is opposing the version of the "Castle law" already cleared by the Senate and sitting in the House because the organization believes it could take away some gun rights.

HB228 supporters told the panel that it is important to clarify self-defense laws to match what Montanans already think is the law. Others said it appropriately makes it more difficult for prosecutors to prove that someone claiming self defense was actually committing a crime.

"I have always said that before we take away a liberty interest or convict someone of a crime that the basic burden of proof, innocent before proven guilty, should be the law of the land," said Rep. Deborah Kottel, D-Great Falls.

Kottel also said she liked provisions guaranteeing that renters and people staying in motels still have a right to own, carry and use guns in self-defense regardless of what the property owner says. And she notes the bill clarifies that self defense also lets people defend neighbors or others.

"What strikes more terror in your heart? To know there is a bad person on the loose ... or that your neighbor sat on the porch and watched as someone hit you, raped you, or injured your child?" Kottel said. "That is what strikes fear in my heart."

Gary Marbut, who runs the Montana Shooting Sports Association and wrote most of the proposed law, said it clarifies "these gray areas in the Montana code that need to be defined."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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