Several Montana sheriffs, according to reports, are violating citizens’ gun rights and derelicting their duty to issue concealed carry permits in order to follow the Covid-19 directives set by Governor Bullock. The Montana Daily Gazette has verified that at least one county is refusing to issue gun permits in order to maintain Bullock’s social-distancing requirements. However, a thorough examination of Montana law shows that there is no legal exception to this responsibility of county sheriffs, and Governor Bullock’s order does not repeal the right to be issued a concealed weapons permit barring a criminal record.
At least one* sheriff is violating Montana Code 45-8-321(1), according to an independent investigation by the Montana Daily Gazette, Silver Bow County Sheriff, Ed Lester.
*UPDATE: An earlier version of this article claimed that Lincoln County Sheriff, Darren Short, was also refusing to issue permits. This was information verified with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s office over the phone earlier today. However, Sheriff Short called the Gazette and offered a correction, that the delay was from March 16 to May 27 and they have since issued 51 new permits and 131 renewals. Information obtained from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office staff was at first inaccurate.
When called at their office, the Silver Bow Sheriff’s Department confirmed to the Gazette that they were not issuing concealed carry permits in order to obey Bullock’s social distancing orders. They claimed that they were unable to issue the permits “without putting our deputies in danger.” Things like finger-printing, for example, required officers to get ‘too close for comfort’ with the public and so they were simply not issuing the permits at all.
However, as cited above, Montana law explicitly says that county sheriffs must issue a permit within 60 days of application. Since 1991, the law has read, “A county sheriff shall, within 60 days after the filing of an application, issue a permit to carry a concealed weapon to the applicant.” In other words, whether or not a sheriff issues a permit is not discretionary. Should an individual be legally qualified to carry concealed, sheriffs must issue the permit within 60 days after they apply.
However, Silver Bow County Sheriff Department is not only delaying permits, they aren’t even receiving applications, a gross departure from Montana law.
The Gazette called the Silver Bow Sheriff’s Department, who also told us over the phone that they were not accepting new concealed carry permits. They were, however, renewing old ones. But according to Under Sheriff George Skuletich, the department would not be issuing new permits because officers could not maintain distancing while taking new applications.
Officer Skuletich told the Gazette, “There is no constitutional right to a concealed carry permit.”
Skuletich is technically right. The right to a concealed carry permit is not written in the state’s constitution, but is written into the state’s broader legal code. Simply put, citizens have a right to be issued a permit outside of the discretion of the sheriff, so long as there is not a legal reason to forbid it.
Sheriffs could easily avoid in-person applicants in ways that violate social distancing restrictions, should they be so inclined. For example, the state law says, “The sheriff … may require an applicant to submit the applicant’s fingerprints …”, 45-8-322(4) M.C.A. The sheriff does not have to require fingerprints, and there’s no reason an applicant should have to get within six feet of a deputy.
Citizens of Silver Bow County are encouraged to visit their local sheriff’s department and/or view deputies on the job out in their respective communities to determine if they are indeed maintaining social distancing in all other affairs. If not, it would seem that the decisions of Sheriff Lester is being capricious and arbitrary in their decision of when to and when to not socially distance.
But regardless of the COVID-19 panic, there is no exception in the state law for issuing a concealed carry permit in a supposed epidemic. Simply put, it is the job of the sheriff at all times as a part of his or her responsibility, just like arresting murderers or mitigating traffic accidents. While officers may be put at risk of contracting a mild respiratory infection, it’s still their legal obligation to issue such permits.
Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association also gave input regarding a clause that might be improperly used by sheriffs to restrict access to conceal permits. Marbut said, “While Montana law for emergency powers does provide authority for the governor to circumvent ‘regulatory’ statutes and rules, 45-8-321, M.C.A. is not ‘regulatory.’ It is a mandate that allows people to protect themselves when the blue line is too thin for that purpose.”
In other words, the law regarding concealed carry permits is not under the regulatory oversight of Bullock’s executive branch. It’s a law, and cannot be overturned by the executive fiat of an emergency order.
Marbut continued, “Montana people are understandably anxious about their personal security given the news we’ve all witnessed on national television. Qualified Montana people need access to mandated CWPs and it is their right to rely on the laws that provide that access.”
One wonders why Sheriffs Lester doesn’t believe that protecting Montanans’ liberties and allowing Montanans to protect themselves is an “essential service” under the governor’s order. It should be noted that both departments told the Montana Daily Gazette they had not even considered whether or not impeding liberties was justified.
Meanwhile, Governor Bullock has been notified that his overreaching executive orders have been used by sheriffs to violate gun rights but he seems undeterred. As of yesterday, Bullock was still posting on his public social media accounts that the novel coronavirus was a “grave threat” that required our corporate submission to his policies in order to survive. Bullock’s catastrophizing over the virus has had rippling effects for Montanans’ liberties all around the state, most of which are not positive.
Meanwhile, outside Montana, even liberal states – with the exception of New York, California, and New Jersey as prime examples – have clarified that health orders do not transcend gun liberties. Bullock seems more prone to lead like his Democratic counterparts, Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsome, and Phil Murphy, who have all used COVID-19 as an opportunity to chip away at gun rights.