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State legislators seek to block any new federal gun laws

Even before Congress takes up any new gun laws, some state legislators are pushing bills to block enforcement.

February 14, 2013|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • Gun rights advocates protest gun control laws in New Jersey. Legislators in some states are proposing bills that would aim to block enforcement of any new federal restrictions on firearms.
Gun rights advocates protest gun control laws in New Jersey. Legislators… (Mel Evans / Associated Press )

WASHINGTON — In Alaska, state House Speaker Mike Chenault says he's heard complaints from all over the state about the federal government "trampling" on gun owners' 2nd Amendment rights.

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe declares that gun control advocates have "gone far enough." And in North Dakota, state Rep. Roscoe Streyle says, "We know what's right for our citizens."

They are among a wave of lawmakers in at least 20 states who are pushing back against the Obama administration's drive to pass tougher gun laws after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. They seek to exempt their states from any new federal regulations.

Even before Congress votes on new gun laws, some state legislators are intent on promoting bills like the Firearms Freedom Act — introduced in Alabama, Michigan and Oklahoma, among other states — based on a theory that guns and ammunition made and kept within state borders do not involve interstate commerce and are out of Washington's reach.

Other bills — such as Pennsylvania's proposed Right to Bear Arms Protection Act — would make it a felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison for government officials to attempt to enforce new federal gun restrictions in their states. A Tennessee bill declares that any federal action seeking to restrict gun ownership in the state "shall be deemed an intentional violation of state sovereignty and shall be unenforceable within the borders of Tennessee."

Wyoming's Republican-controlled House has sent to the state Senate, on a 46-13 vote, a measure declaring unenforceable any future federal ban on semiautomatic weapons or limits on the size of ammunition magazines that remain exclusively in the state.

President Obama has called for background checks for all gun sales and reinstatement of bans that expired in 2004 on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Obama alluded to those proposals in his State of the Union address Tuesday, calling on Congress to bring them up for a vote.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the wave of state legislation.

The spate of proposed state laws reflects the national schism of opinion on gun control.

While lawmakers in a number of states fight the Obama administration's efforts, New York recently passed a tougher gun law. California is also considering strengthening its laws, including requiring background checks for anyone who buys bullets. Maryland is weighing new limits, including licensing for handgun buyers.

A group of Colorado Democrats is quickly moving forward with legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, expand background checks and hold gun makers and sellers liable for damage caused by their weapons, though that could conflict with a 2005 federal law shielding the industry from certain lawsuits.

Some legal experts said the states' proposals to limit gun control would be unlikely to withstand a constitutional challenge. And it's uncertain whether any will be signed into law.

A spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, said the governor believed there were "plenty of ways for Wyoming to send a message voicing concern about infringements on the 2nd Amendment, but he is concerned about creating an unenforceable law."

In Virginia, a GOP-sponsored measure to prohibit local and state officials from assisting federal authorities in enforcing any new gun restrictions ran into trouble after lawmakers raised concerns that it could cost the state federal aid.

A number of the gun rights measures are patterned after a 2009 Montana law. Its constitutionality is before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, with oral arguments set to begin in March.

Legal experts cite a 2005 Supreme Court ruling upholding federal restrictions on homegrown marijuana in California as the precedent that stands to doom the spate of gun exemption laws. The court ruled that because marijuana moved in a national market, the federal government could regulate its use, even if it were grown and used only in California.

"There's apparently some people out there who have yet to read the Constitution," said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

But the bills are also designed to sway federal lawmakers. "It is time to send a message to those in Washington, D.C., that we will not stand for the continual erosion of our rights and freedoms," Nebraska state Sen. Charlie Janssen said in an Internet message seeking support for his bill.

Metcalfe, a Republican who is the chief sponsor of the Pennsylvania Right to Bear Arms Protection Act, said the measure had generated more public reaction than any bill he had sponsored in 15 years in office.

The disparate state responses underscore the difficulty of reaching a political consensus on an issue that often divides lawmakers not just by party affiliation but also geography.

Indeed, after New York acted to tighten gun laws, Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott ran an Internet ad inviting New Yorkers to keep their guns and come to the Lone Star State.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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