Missouri has become the latest state to issue a broad challenge to federal gun law enforcement, as Republican-controlled state legislatures step up their fierce political counterattack on gun control proposals at late President Biden.
A bill signed by Gov. Mike Parson over the weekend – at a gun store called Frontier Justice – threatens with a $ 50,000 fine any local police department that enforces certain federal laws and regulations on firearms that constitute Second Amendment firearms rights “offenses”.
At least eight other states – Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia – have taken similar steps this year, passing laws of varying force that discourage or prohibit law enforcement. federal firearms by state and local authorities. agents and officers.
The new law “aims to protect law-abiding Missourians from government excesses and unconstitutional federal mandates,” Parson and Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in a letter defending the law Thursday to the US Department of Justice. . They said the state “would reject any attempt by the federal government to circumvent the fundamental right of Missourians to keep and bear arms to protect themselves and their property.”
In interviews, the bill’s sponsors in the Missouri House and Senate conceded that the law would most likely have little immediate effect on the current operations of local and state police departments, as there is currently little difference between federal and state gun laws in Missouri. .
There would be no change to the federal background check requirement before purchasing firearms from licensed gun dealers, they said, and local police could still assist with federal operations. gun law enforcement as long as the targeted person also violated a state law.
Republican lawmakers have said their primary intention is to guard against the potential of broader Washington legislation, where Democratic lawmakers have proposed a major expansion of federal background checks, an extension of the period in which federal officials can review purchases and invoices. restrict the sale of popular semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15.
“Missouri law almost mirrors federal law now,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, who sponsored the bill at Missouri House. “So I really think the concern is what’s next – what’s going to come from the federal government? “
With Congress in Democratic hands, pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association are turning to the states. A growing number of Republican-sponsored gun bills are making their way through state legislatures, all in an attempt to ease restrictions and oversight in anticipation of Mr. Biden’s next moves.
Among the most significant are new laws in Tennessee, Iowa and Texas that now allow most adults to carry firearms without a license.
Some states offer all-in-one packages. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana, a Republican, signed an extensive relaxation of the state’s gun laws, including a provision that allows guns to be carried on college campuses and in the Capitol. of State.
Critics say the concept enshrined in the new Missouri law and other similar laws – state laws that attempt to undermine federal laws – is a legally fragile but politically powerful strategy deployed in the past in the South to resist the anti-slavery and civil rights laws.
“The fire was really kindled under my fellow Republicans when Biden was elected – we’re back to whatever they come for your guns that we saw under Obama,” said State Representative Tracy McCreery, a Democrat in the St. Louis area who opposed the bill.
There is a widespread opinion among legal scholars, and even some supporters of the so-called Second Amendment sanctuary strategy, that any attempt to replace federal law would violate a clause in the Constitution that says federal law takes precedence over state laws. in conflict. In West Virginia, where a law similar to Missouri came into effect in May, the state’s Republican attorney general created a legal defense team to coincide with its enactment.
Missouri law is not just symbolic, Ms. McCreery said, and could make local law enforcement officials think twice before fully cooperating with federal law enforcement agencies on, for example example, a gun trafficking case investigated under a federal gun law that was stricter than Missouri laws.
“A fine of $ 50,000 for a rural sheriff or a police officer is a huge threat,” she said.
On Wednesday, Brian M. Boynton, an assistant attorney general who heads the civil division of the Department of Justice, wrote to Missouri officials asking them to clarify several aspects of the law by Friday, including whether it was aimed at blocking the law. use of national background checks. system or to prevent local police from asking federal agents to locate a firearm.
“The public safety of the people of the United States and the citizens of Missouri is paramount,” Mr. Boynton wrote.
In their response, Governor Parson and the Attorney General said they are not trying to overturn federal laws but rather are preventing local police officers from being used to enforce those laws. They said they would not allow the federal government to “tell Missourians how to live our lives.”
Supporters of the bill said they were adopting a strategy that has been frequently used for liberal causes, such as “sanctuary cities” laws that prohibit local officials from enforcing federal immigration laws. They also compared it to the laws of states that have legalized the use of marijuana despite an ongoing federal drug ban.
Republicans in Missouri have been trying to pass a version of the new gun bill, called the Second Amendment Preservation Act, since at least 2013, when they were blocked by then Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon , who vetoed a tougher iteration of the law.
Mr Taylor said his colleagues were motivated to continue the effort this year in response to Mr Biden’s election and comments on gun restrictions from other Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic presidential candidate from Texas whose statement during a 2019 debate – “Damn, yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15” – raised questions among gun rights supporters at across the country.
“We’ve been hearing this story for 10 or 15 years that they want to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and that’s really what it’s about, is to make sure we protect ourselves against it. these offenses, ”Taylor says.
Mr Taylor and State Senator Eric Burlison said the Justice Department’s concerns were overblown and the bill would have little or no effect on the participation of local police officers on federal task forces. And, they pointed out, the bill does nothing to prohibit FBI agents or other federal agents from arresting people in Missouri for breaking federal law.
“They have every right to enter Missouri as they do today,” Mr. Burlison said of federal agents. He added that the law focused on what he called the “absolutely crazy ideas we hear from the swamp folks in Washington,” such as proposals to limit the size of magazines.
But the new laws come at a time of extraordinary volatility and partisan resentment. Gun safety groups warn their message will only fuel a dangerous discord.
“They couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the group founded and funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Cities across the country are grappling with gun violence – it will be a very difficult summer. At the same time, we face fundamental threats to democracy, with the attack on Capitol Hill and the attempt to overturn the elections. “
Despite the backlash, Mr. Biden’s major gun control measures have been relatively modest, his most radical proposals on expanded background checks and the assault rifle ban are unlikely to pass. soon by Congress.
In March, the administration announced a series of executive actions, including a ban on homemade firearms, known as “phantom weapons,” restrictions on the use of slings that facilitate the use of semi-automatic pistols and a model of state legislative proposal for enactment. red flag laws to identify people with mental health problems who may be at higher risk of committing gun crimes.
For supporters of the Missouri law, these measures are not “common sense” checks as Mr. Biden claims, but a dangerous intrusion that requires an equally powerful response.
“We will fight any attempt by the federal government to infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Schmitt said.