SALT LAKE CITY — With Democrats controlling the presidency and Congress, Republican state lawmakers concerned about the possibility of new federal gun control laws aren't waiting to react.
Legislation in at least a dozen states seeks to nullify any new restrictions, such as ammunition limits or a ban on certain types of weapons. Some bills would make it a crime for local police officers to enforce federal gun laws.
That can create confusion for officers who often work with federal law enforcement, said Daniel Isom, a former chief of the St. Louis Police Department who is now a senior advisor for Everytown for Gun Safety. Federal law plays a big role in some areas, such as keeping guns away from domestic violence offenders.
Putting local officers in a position to decide which laws to enforce is the last thing police need at a time when cities such as St. Louis are experiencing a rise in violent crime, Isom said.
“This has been an extremely challenging year for both communities and law enforcement, and to ask any more mental strain on officers at this point in time seems to be quite displaced," he said. Gun sales also have set monthly records nationwide since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Isom is concerned about a Missouri measure passed by the state House that would allow police departments with officers who enforce federal gun laws to be sued and face a $50,000 fine. It's not the first time Missouri has considered such a bill, but supporters pointed to President Joe Biden taking office as a reason to pass it now.
In Utah, Republican Rep. Cory Maloy also referenced the incoming administration after the state House passed his bill with a similar provision forbidding the enforcement of federal gun laws. Many Republican state lawmakers see attempts to pass federal firearms restrictions as a threat to the Second Amendment.
“We really feel the need to protect those rights,” he said.
Uphill climb for gun bills
Several states passed similar laws under then-President Barack Obama, although judges have ruled against them in court. Most of the latest crop of federal nullification proposals focus on police officers inside their states who primarily enforce state rather than federal laws.
While Biden has called for a ban on assault weapons, any new gun legislation will likely face an uphill climb given the political polarization that has tripped up past administrations. Democratic lawmakers from conservative-leaning states also could join Republicans in opposing new gun restrictions. Any measures likely to pass would have broad support, like background checks on all gun sales, said Everytown President John Feinblatt.
Those dynamics haven't stopped state lawmakers who want to make the first move to protect gun rights in their states. Federal nullification bills have been introduced in more than a dozen other states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wyoming, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Iowa. In Texas, the governor has called for the state to become a Second Amendment sanctuary.
Federal vs. state
In Arizona, a Senate proposal that passed the chamber on Wednesday would allow officers to be sued for enforcing federal gun restrictions that the state considers violations of the Second Amendment. They potentially could face criminal charges. A bill in the House doesn't include those punishments, but its sponsor, Republican Rep. Leo Biasiucci, said it would be a clear rejection of federal restrictions on assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines or other firearms.
"They can do that at a federal level, but in Arizona it’s not going to fly,” he said.
His proposal passed the state House last week over the objections of Democrats such as Rep. Daniel Hernandez of Tucson, who was present at the 2011 shooting that severely injured former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords. If signed into law, the measure would be unconstitutional and lead to an expensive court fight, he said.
Biasiucci compares his plan to Arizona voters' move to legalize recreational marijuana even though it remains against federal law. Gun-control groups see it differently.
“Guns kill people and are used to create a public safety issue, whereas marijuana is really not,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “What is likely to happen if gun laws are not followed is people get killed as a result.”
Similar measures passed by the Republican Legislature in Montana were vetoed in previous years by the former Democratic governor. Now working with a Republican governor, the state House passed a bill last week to bar state officials from enforcing federal bans on certain firearms, ammunition or magazines.
Under Obama's presidency, the Legislature passed a law in 2009 that made guns and ammunition manufactured in Montana exempt from federal law. It eventually was struck down in court, but several states still followed with their own nullification measures. In 2013, two Kansas men tried to use that state's nullification law to overturn their federal convictions for possessing unregistered firearms, but the challenge was rejected.
“The main issue there is the Supremacy Clause," the part of the Constitution that says federal law supersedes state law, said Jacob Charles, executive director of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School. Even so, the bills focused on what local police can and can't do could pass legal muster.
“States have no obligation to enforce federal law," he said.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.