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News & Editorials

How will GOA recover from its self-inflicted foot-shooting?

Does application of First Amendment rights deserve the same "watch your muzzle direction", "finger off the trigger until ready to shoot", and "carefully identify your target" that prevails in responsible application of Second Amendment rights?

from Gary S. Marbut
President, Montana Shooting Sports Association


I hope to be able to contribute something to the discussion between Angel Shamaya and Andy Barniskis of the Bucks County Sportsmen Coalition.

For background, Gun Owners of America recently sent out an email "alert" advising members to oppose a bill, HB 258, being pushed in the Montana Legislature by the Montana Shooting Sports Association and other in-state, pro-gun organizations. GOA's adverse description of the bill was most inaccurate and very inflammatory.

For the record, the bill would revise the methodology for raising funds to fuel the already-existing shooting range development program in Montana, and make a switch from using in-state hunter license fees, to auctioning off a handful of moose, sheep and goat permits, and non-resident big game combination licenses to raise money for the program. GOA incorrectly asserted in their inflammatory "alert" to Montana gun owners that passage of the bill would accomplish a government control of all shooting ranges in Montana, and that all Montana gun owners could continue to own guns only if they were stored in government-controlled lockboxes at the newly government-controlled ranges, an accusation clearly designed to scare uninformed Montana gun owners into opposing HB 258.

As a result, lots of concerned gun owners have contacted legislators insisting that HB 258 be killed, so these law abiding gun owners won't have their guns taken in the GOA-alleged gun confiscation scheme. Because of the GOA-induced outcry, the Legislature has now stripped the permit auction funding mechanism out of the bill, which returns the range development program to the less free-market-oriented status quo of using in-state hunter license fees to fund the program.

When defended the Montana approach, and suggested that GOA owed a retraction and an apology for how GOA had mucked things up in Montana, Andy responded in defense of GOA and in criticism of

First, I am glad that Andy has taken the time to comment on this. There are too many who don't care, or can't be bothered to do anything positive for the RKBA - too many who think it's enough to only bitch and assume somebody else will do something. Apparently, Andy is willing to get involved. As our Secretary/Treasurer often says, "This is a good thing."

Allow me to begin with a basic philosophical point as a good starting point for this discussion. The Montana Constitution says, at article II, Section 1,

"Popular sovereignty. All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole."

This is a basic premise of all governance by popular consent.

It may be that there have been beneficial laws enacted in Pennsylvania, as Andy asserts, which have not born fruit for the people there. If so, the citizens of Pennsylvania have only themselves to blame. No agency, entity or level of government ever enforces upon itself any constraints to limit power, size or scope. That is necessarily the job of the people, the sovereigns. One hundred times out of one hundred, if the people fail to assert their sovereign authority to enforce statutory limitations on government, then whatever level or agency of government is not constrained will assume growing authority. This is the nature of man, and of the cooperative workings of man, such as governments.

Like George Washington, I view all levels of government as, not some sort of potential or real goodness, but as a barely tolerable menace and unavoidable for certain cooperative ventures. I believe that the common defense and public roads are examples of two activities where people appropriately pool their resources through the cooperative agency of government to accomplish together what they could not accomplish acting individually.

I do also believe that governments have come to occupy much too large a place in our lives, and that a great deal of what is done for and to us by federal and state governments ought not be done, except from people to people in neighborhoods, through churches and other local associations, but never by wielding the ultimate force of the barrel of a gun that is the final physical authority for most governmental assertions (e.g., if I don't pay my property taxes, the county or state imposes a lien on my property; if I still don't pay, they take title and sell my property; if I don't move out, they send the sheriff; and if I won't cooperate with the sheriff, in the final event, he pulls his gun to enforce the edict of the government, as a last resort, with a bullet).

Having said all of that, there remain some activities which are appropriate missions for people to bestow upon government as a cooperative form of action. The shooting range development program in Montana is a concept where the citizens went to their elected representatives in the Legislature, and asked them to compel our public servants, in the form of our Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), to use some of the monies that are already being collected from hunters, for hunting licenses, to make grants to people and entities in Montana wishing to establish or improve safe and suitable places for Montana people to shoot. Since we estimate that more than 90% of the households in Montana contain firearms, we believe that Montana needs a plenitude of safe and suitable places for people to learn, practice and play with their firearms. FWP has actually resisted for a decade our efforts to force them, via legislation, to be our agents in this matter.

Only someone totally ignorant of the circumstances here could ever claim that this is some sort of government conspiracy to take over shooting ranges, as GOA has done in it's attempt to derail HB 258.

Further, in Montana, the citizens still have the upper hand over our government. We are still sufficiently assertive that the state government must do what the laws require, because WE enforce those legal constraints on our government agencies. If Andy and his fellow citizens have lost control over their public servants, I certainly sympathize with them, but that is not the case here in Montana. That's precisely why we were able to go the Legislature last session with seven pro-gun bills, and get six of those passed. And, we are unwilling to forego the benefits of cooperative action (i.e., telling our FWP to parcel out money to improve ranges) simply because citizens in another place (as Andy alleges about Pennsylvania) have failed to retain control over their servants.

Also, there ARE some "government shooting ranges" in Montana. But not many. As I know of, there is one shooting range on a U.S. Air Force base, one range developed and used by the Montana National Guard, one range owned and operated by the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, and a handful of other ranges developed and used by local law enforcement agencies. None of these ranges have used any funds available from sportsmen through our (OUR!) shooting range development program. If any of these agencies were to apply for, be granted, and accept any funds from the program, they would immediately be required to open their ranges to some sort of reasonable public access.

There are quite a few shooting ranges in Montana owned, operated and managed by private associations of sportsmen and gun owners. None of these ranges are required to apply for or use any funds made available under the program. And, I'll bet that, given the extant laws in Montana (notably our shooting range protection act, which I wrote, and which was the first such act in the U.S.), civilian shooting ranges in Montana are less subject to governmental authority and control than anywhere else in the U.S., maybe in the World. In fact, because of our vigilance, there are NO laws in Montana controlling ranges, although the normal constraints attached to any private property owner would pertain to range properties, including civil liability.

And, ranges which do apply for and accept grants from our range development program (which, as I said before, is already on the law books in Montana) are only required to surrender to two types of restraints from the state, both of which I (I am not a government employee or elected official) wrote into the law to protect the investment of the people who are paying into the program through hunter license fees (no taxpayer money whatsoever). Those two constraints are these:

1) If an association should receive a grant, improve their range, then quit operating the range (allow it to close or become unusable), there is a provision in the grant contract that allows FWP, on behalf of the investors (Montana sportsmen and women), to assume the property/range and locate a new association of sportsmen to operate the range. There have been occasions in Montana where an organization operating a range simply dissolves and walks away. In that instance, we reserved the opportunity in the shooting range development act to get an abandoned and previously-funded range back into service.

2) If an organization applies for and accepts a grant for range improvement, they are required to satisfy one of two schemes for allowing public access to the funded facility. This is to make sure a handful of good ole boys don't use program funds, then declare that only they and a very few of their buddies may use the range. The two acceptable schemes for satisfying the public access requirement are these:

a) the operating organization can allow the general public to use the range for a day use fee per person, including under some limited circumstances (such as limiting to one day per week, and/or limiting these day-use people to certain parts of the facility, or

b) the organization must allow into its membership and full use of its facility anyone who is eligible to purchase a Montana hunting license and who pays the organization's usual dues, which must be no more than a reasonable share of the organization's cost of operating and improving the range. Ranges in some parts of the U.S. charge thousands of dollars for membership in order to limit membership, or have a fixed membership limit.

Neither of these types of membership limitation would allow an applicant range qualify for funding under option b).

So, this is all of the "government control" that would apply to ranges which seek and obtain improvement grants under the program. And, these "control" items are ones which citizens have crafted and asked the Legislature to impose on the public agency selected by the citizens to manage the program.

Three other comments are in order.

First, the change in the shooting range program contained in this session's HB 258, against which GOA railed with such hyperbole, is nothing more than a change in the funding mechanism to support the program. As I pointed out in my letter to Larry Pratt, the shooting range program itself has been operational for a decade, and was put into the law books in a prior session of the Legislature. So, the range development program will continue, whether or not HB 258 lives or dies. Further, GOA has been aware of our range development program for a decade, and never before voiced any objection, including calling me on the phone to talk about the concept.

The change in funding for the program contained in HB 258 is to shift from using in-state hunter license dollars (no general tax revenues), to selling a handful of high-value Montana game permits at auction in order to realize full value from these permits.

There is a much greater demand for these permits than the supply of animals allows harvest. This is why we (the people, through our Legislature) limit the hunting of these animals - so non-residents don't swarm the state and take them all. Normally, these permits are awarded by lottery. Because the method for limiting permits to available game supply is by the artificial lottery method in Montana, rather than through the market method of raising prices, these permits are normally priced way below full market value.

Our HB 258 would allow a few of these permits to be sold at full market value, rather than through the more democratic (socialistic?) lottery method. This scheme would realize the full value from these few permits, and we would put the EXTRA money raised (beyond the price for which FWP would usually sell the permit under the lottery method) into the shooting range development program. Therefore, the HB 258 would move the funding methodology in the free market direction. Said differently, failure to achieve passage of HB 258 would retain the less free market-oriented (more socialistic?) method of funding for range development.

Second, we still have a citizen Legislature in Montana. Our Legislature meets only every two years, and then for only 90 working days. And the people who serve in the Legislature come from all walks of Montana life. They are not fat-cat, career politicians like in some other states, who take up permanent residence in the State Capitol for all practical purposes but re-election. Our legislators live in motel rooms, in friends' basements, and in their hunting camp trailers, while they are temporarily in the State Capitol enacting the laws we ask them to enact. Other states which have allowed their legislators to become permanent political commissars have our sympathy but not our respect.

Third, in Montana, we're doing pretty well in terms of protecting our right to keep and bear arms - probably better than anyplace else in the U.S. We don't really appreciate carpetbaggers telling us how to conduct our affairs any better than they do in Georgia. While we are a friendly and hospitable folk, we naturally resent having outside ideas imposed on us, especially ideas and limitations on our freedoms, such as the Brady Law and the Feinstein semi-auto and magazine ban, both of which were imposed on us by the representatives in Congress from the other states. One of the reasons why it was not possible to forestall the Brady Law in Congress is because in most other states, the citizens had already allowed the politicians to impose background checks and waiting periods on gun buyers at the state level.

And, having outside and contrary ideas imposed on us from the Beltway area is no more welcome when it comes from an organization supposedly pro-gun, telling us what we need (for our own good, of course), than when it comes from an anti-gun organization or a paternalistic, Big Brother government.

One might argue that GOA certainly enjoys the right to free speech, which they do. However, if all they were after was exercise of free speech (rather than imposing their national-view agenda, or creating a ruckus), they certainly would have called me before coming out of left field with their attack on our HB 258. Said differently, if they really wanted what's best for Montana gun owners, rather than to only kick up a fuss, they'd have called me to check the accuracy of their claims about HB 258 before launching their attack.

More specifically, applying Second Amendment terms to First Amendment activity, they would have watched their muzzle direction more carefully, and when they found their sights lined up on a no-shoot target (another pro-gun organization), they would have kept their finger out of the trigger guard. Using their First Amendment rights, they were careless with muzzle direction, and squeezed off a "sound shot", without having properly identified their target. However, one difference with this First Amendment negligent discharge is that they hit two targets, another pro-gun group and their own foot. Shooting themselves in the foot can be dismissed with a mixture of humor and contempt. But, the careless and negligent shooting of a friend is not a forgivable act.

We've all heard that, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." This old saw implies that words do not have consequences. Well, that is not the case in this situation. Because of GOA's ill-considered attack on our range funding proposal, HB 258, the members of the committee of the Legislature having charge of HB 258 received a lot of angry phone calls from constituents who were alarmed that the Legislature was considering such a "Socialist Shooting Range" bill, which, in the words of constituents parroting GOA hyperbole, would cause a full government takeover of all shooting ranges in Montana, requiring all gun owners to store their firearms in government lockboxes at government ranges, and where access to firearms would only be with government permission. Because of this general alarm, committee members have chosen to strip the funding mechanism out of the bill, and put in a measly and temporary $60,000 of hunter license fees, rather than agree to the more market-oriented funding which the bill proposed, and which was estimated to raise $350,000 in this funding cycle.

In killing the proffered, market-oriented funding mechanism, legislators have listened to objections from constituents, who have been incited by misleading information in the GOA attack. The result is the continuation of the past funding mechanism, which, according to most observers, is more "socialistic" than that funding proposed under HB 258.

By attacking HB 258 as a "Socialist Shooting Range" bill, GOA has achieved the most socialistic possible outcome.

For anyone who cannot understand that description, let me try to simplify it one more step. By attacking HB 258 as a "Socialist Shooting Range" bill, GOA has achieved the most socialistic possible outcome. Those of us in Montana who dislike socialism also dislike it when a foreign entity has the effect of promoting socialism in our state.

I am willing to concede that GOA had the opposite effect of what they intended because their good intentions resulted in a bad outcome. But, as my Mom says, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." Just because their intentions may have been good, this doesn't make their conduct acceptable. GOA's problem was that they didn't look before they leaped - they overran their headlights. If they had just called me - if they had just made one phone call, or if they had simply read HB 258, they could have avoided all this trouble, both for us and for their credibility. I also accept that this fiasco was not caused by any inherent evil on the part of GOA (notwithstanding that some assert it to be evil to nudge the scale in the direction of tyranny). Rather, the fiasco was caused by ignorance (GOA not understanding what they were doing), and part of GOA's ignorance was an unwillingness to contemplate the extent of their ignorance in this particular matter.

Finally, I would be less concerned about this occurrence if it had not cost us the more Libertarian and generous funding scheme we have spent three years patiently working towards, and if this were the first time that GOA had exhibited such incompetent and unforgivable behavior in Montana. However, on a previous occasion, they caused more problems for gun owners in Montana, and pro-gun progress in Montana, than Handgun Control could ever cause here, an incident so egregious that it caused me to withdraw from being the only elected member of the seven-member GOA Board of Directors.

So, if Andy admires GOA for the work they do in-state, he should invite them to do as much of their work as possible - maybe all of it - in his state. Perhaps with GOA's help, Andy and his fellow gun owners will be able to obtain the needed enforcement of good gun laws in Pennsylvania, and get the bad ones repealed. Then, when the legal circumstances for gun owners in Pennsylvania are as good as they are in Montana, maybe both he and GOA could get back to us and ask if we need any help. Until then, quite frankly, we will do much better without GOA's "help" in killing the bills which we initiate to move Montana gun owners in the direction of freedom, and in the direction of responsible gun ownership and use.

And, I believe GOA still owes a retraction and an apology for their irresponsible First Amendment barrage targeted at those who ought to be considered a no-shoot target - an ally. GOA fired a negligent shot and hit a friend. Why is this so hard to understand, and why aren't they contrite?

Sincerely yours,

Gary Marbut
President, Montana Shooting Sports Association Note:  We hope to have a rebuttal/response from GOA to print and will gladly do so in the interest of both fairness in debate and in that we love, respect, admire and appreciate the vast majority of what they do. Submitting to our site is done right here: The following is our ultimate position on this matter:

Montana Shooting Sports Association ROCKS !!
Gun Owners of America ROCKS !!




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