As a Stanford mechanical engineering grad in 1990, Bryan von Lossberg joined NASA’s Pathfinder project, building what engineers nicknamed the “Martian Beer Cooler.” The white-cased container protected delicate electronic equipment from extreme temperatures and breakneck speeds. The project succeeded, somewhat miraculously, placing Pathfinder on Mars in 1997, despite a razor-thin budget in space terms — just $ 175 million — while relying on a parachute, a honeycombed air bag system and a bouncing landing.
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When von Lossberg recounted this story at dinner parties, people would react with amazement — or with fury that the “crazy” mission was paid for by tax dollars, the 49-year-old recalls. In present-day Missoula, Montana, folks are having similarly polarized reactions to another project of his, one that in Big Sky Country sounds as outlandish and perhaps even more implausible: passing gun reform.
[Montana] families pass guns from generation to generation, with some households owning more than two dozen firearms.
The first-term city councilman with shock-white hair belongs to a small swath of gun control advocates working in the red heart of conservative states. Von Lossberg took up the issue two years ago, when a Moms Demand Action chapter came to him concerned. The state has had one of the nation’s highest suicide rates for nearly 40 years, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reported last year. And while its high schoolers attempted suicide at a similar rate to the rest of the country, Montana children ages 11 to 17 were far more likely to complete the act — with 11 suicides in 2014 (the most recent year of data), and double the national rate for the same age group. What’s more, in the past 10 years of study, 65 percent of youth suicides involved firearms. Those figures stunned von Lossberg, and in October he led the Missoula City Council to an 8-4 resolution requiring background checks for all private sales. “They’re trying to fulfill their obligation to the citizens by enacting a law that they believe to be legally sound and has been proven to save lives,” says Laura Cutilletta, legal director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
What von Lossberg has accomplished is unprecedented in recent Treasure State history — and for good reason, critics say, because it may be unconstitutional. Montana is one of 40 states with a “pre-emption law” barring local municipalities from restricting gun access without statehouse approval. In full knowledge of this, “they forged ahead … and created a lot of turbulence and distress in the community that was unnecessary,” says Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and author of Gun Laws of Montana. With the pre-emption law in place, it wasn’t surprising when, in January, Montana’s Republican Attorney General Tim Fox opined that von Lossberg’s ordinance was illegal, leaving the measure virtually unenforcable.
Perhaps, but von Lossberg, with support from the city attorney, believes the case has merit if they pursue it. He references a state code saying localities can “prevent and suppress” firearm possession by felons, undocumented immigrants, the mentally ill and minors — legitimizing his push for background checks, he argues, with a nod toward local control. “There’s a significant amount of people that don’t take kindly to the trampling of the city’s ability to do this within its jurisdiction,” he says. Which leaves the former space engineer with a conundrum: Should he idle in neutral, or shoot for the moon, enforce the resolution and wage what will surely be a costly court battle against the state? Hanging in the balance is not just Missoula’s welfare — should von Lossberg prevail, the measure could also pave the way for other jurisdictions to fight for local control on gun issues.
With his bicycle helmet beside him, von Lossberg explains his philosophical journey on gun issues. After graduating in environmental studies from the University of Montana, he learned how to hunt from a former classmate who gifted him his first rifle. Years later, when von Lossberg advanced the background check legislation, the same friend confided that when he resold his guns, the sale was contingent on the buyer agreeing to a background check, even though it wasn’t required. It was a moral and practical issue, the friend said, to ensure that the guns never fell into the wrong hands — a sentiment von Lossberg heard echoed by gun owners in town hall meetings. Today, the married father talks about teaching his 5-year-old daughter to hunt someday, and preaching the background check system he urgently espouses.
Still, many Montanans don’t see the need for such measures. “Suicide is a much more complex problem” than simply access to guns, Marbut argues, although he doesn’t deny the state’s high suicide rate. He views folks like von Lossberg, a California transplant, as imports trying to change the state ethos, a culture in which families pass guns from generation to generation, with some households owning more than two dozen firearms. Marbut believes roughly 9 in 10 households in Montana own guns, an “educated guess,” he says, based on studying firearm and ammunition sales data.
Von Lossberg concedes that many of those who approved of the ordinance don’t want to see the city dragged into a lengthy court battle, especially after it just ended a years-long case to gain control of the local water utility. While the ordinance sits in limbo, von Lossberg is betting on the long game, noting that even Missoula, now a thriving city, was once the bottom of a glacial lake. “I’m much more a believer in glacial, incremental change,” he says.