by Phillip Smith
Montana's attorney general has become the latest high-ranking political figure in Big Sky Country to blast the Obama administration and its Department of Justice over a September 21 memo from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) instructing federal licensed firearms dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" or "Illegal drug users" who cannot be sold firearms or ammunition. [Editor's Note: See our September 28 feature article on the issue here.] Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) now joins the entire state congressional delegation in blasting the administration's position.
Montana, which legalized medical marijuana through a popular vote in 2004, has more than 24,000 registered medical marijuana patients. It also has more than 200,000 hunters and issued more than 580,000 hunting licenses last year.
In a letter sent Monday to US Attorney General Eric Holder, Bullock strongly objected to the ATF's "unilateral" approach to the issue and said he was willing to explore "reasonable solutions" to the problems created by the AFT letter. The goal would be to find an approach that works for the 16 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, he said.
"This would be much better than the type of unilateral proclamation represented by the ATF letter, which was issued without any advance notice or discussion with the elected officials who represent more than one-fourth of this nation's population and one-third of its states," Bullock wrote. "In the meantime, I respectfully request that the Department of Justice not pursue any criminal prosecutions against law-abiding citizens in Montana who exercise their constitutional rights to possess guns and enjoy hunting, or the licensees who are implicitly threatened by ATF's letter."
The ATF memo warns dealers they cannot sell guns or ammo to medical marijuana users "even if the person uses it in full compliance with state law that authorizes its use for medical purposes," Bullock complained. "The letter even takes it a step further by emphasizing that ATF is placing the responsibility on licensees to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe that the purchaser did not accurately fill out the ATF forms," he said.
While recognizing the supremacy clause in the US Constitution, Bullock added that the AFT memo raised constitutional issues around the right to bear arms, equal protection, and due process. "In our federal system of dual sovereignty, I respectfully suggest that the federal government should act in a careful manner when its laws and policies involve conflicts with those of the state," he said.
Bullock is just the latest high-ranking Montana elected official to come out swinging against the ATF memo. Last week, Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D) joined US Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in criticizing the federal move.
In a letter last Wednesday to Holder and memo author Arthur Herbert, ATF assistant director for enforcement, Tester urged them to "immediately reconsider this misguided effort."
"These regulatory changes infringe upon the privacy and Second Amendment rights of Montanans while placing an unreasonable burden upon the small-business owners who sell firearms and ammunition," Tester said. "It is unacceptable that law-abiding citizens would be stripped of their Second Amendment rights simply because they hold a state-issued card authorizing the possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Tester's colleague Max Baucus also chimed in. "Our Second Amendment rights are a part of who we are as Montanans, and I’ve always fought hard to protect our right to bear arms," Baucus said. "I’m concerned to hear ATF may be impeding the rights of law-abiding folks. Individual gun rights must be protected and I’ll never stop fighting to make sure they stay intact."
A spokesman for Rep. Rehberg told the Billings Gazette that he, too, opposed the policy. "Between the ATF clamping down on gun rights and two new anti-gun Supreme Court justices, Montanans’ Second Amendment rights are once again under fire from Washington," spokesman Jed Link said Thursday. "Denny’s going to keep fighting to protect this critical right from Washington overreach, whether it is legislative, executive or judicial."
The criticisms from high-ranking elected officials come on the heels of angry reactions last week from medical marijuana advocates and gun rights advocates in Montana. In a fiercely divided state, the ATF memo has managed to unite Republicans and Democrats, at least on one issue.