By Emilie Ritter
HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - About two dozen gun-toting Tea Party activists staged a rally at the Montana statehouse on Friday to support the Second Amendment right to bear arms and limiting the reach of the federal government.
Outnumbered by the media and politicians in attendance, the protesters spoke in favor of conservative-backed bills to nullify various U.S. laws, such as the Endangered Species Act or the newly enacted reform of the nation's healthcare system.
The demonstrators had received special permission in advance to bring their weapons, unloaded and secured, to the state Capitol grounds for the rally.
"What a beautiful March day to gather on the steps of the Montana Capitol and let freedom ring," said Tim Ravndal, head of the Lewis and Clark Conservative Tea Party. "Let's have a hand for all us patriots out here making a statement."
Their firearms included handguns and a semi-automatic rifle. But their broad sentiment was in favor of numerous bills introduced in the Montana legislature backing states rights.
Known as "nullification" measures, they seek to void various federal laws on grounds that the 10th Amendment of the Constitution reserves for states any powers not delegated to the federal government nor prohibited to the states.
"A lot of people say nullification will lead to anarchy or civil war or destruction of the union, and that couldn't be further from the truth," said Republican state lawmaker Derek Skees. "It's actually the opposite. It allows for a pressure valve, a release for the people to get their voices heard."
But Democratic Representative Tim Furey disagreed.
"For us to be bringing up nullification bills while our troops are fighting for our state and country, I just think it's terrible," he said.
Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network said the image of armed political activists rallying at the state Capitol may intimidate those with dissenting views.
"A democracy needs to be a safe space where ideas can be nurtured and spoken without the fear or threat of violence," Greer said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)