HELENA — Montana doesn't have the authority to exempt itself from national gun control laws, the federal government argued in new court filings, hoping to beat back a movement from states adopting the Firearms Freedom Act.
The Department of Justice, in a brief filed this week in U.S. District Court in Missoula, said that federal gun control is a "valid exercise of Congress' commerce power under the Constitution."
The agency asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year by gun advocates in Montana who argued the state should decide which rules, if any, would control the sale and purchase of guns and paraphernalia made in Montana. The state would then be exempt from rules on federal gun registration, background checks and dealer-licensing.
The lawsuit followed overwhelming support in the state Legislature for an act that declared Montana's sovereignty on the issue. That Montana Firearms Freedom Act was subsequently signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Gun advocates want a court declaration preventing federal agents from enforcing federal gun laws on Montana-made equipment. They said it's disappointing the Justice Department would seek a dismissal of the suit rather than arguing its merits.
"The first import of this response is that the legal game is now on," said Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
Tennessee adopted a clone of the Montana act, which has been proposed in many other states.
The Justice Department argued in its brief that the state act is pre-empted by federal gun control. It also said the advocates don't have standing to bring the lawsuit.
The brief said the 1934 National Firearms Act was first put in place to regulate guns that could be "used readily and efficiently by criminals or gangsters."
Congress followed it in 1968 with a gun control act aimed at decreasing serious crime, and further strengthened its control over interstate commerce, the brief points out.
Those laws and others all mean to keep tabs on guns that easily pass between state borders, the Justice Department argued.
"To achieve this goal, Congress put in place a comprehensive scheme to regulate the movement of firearms in commerce," the government lawyers wrote in their brief.