I confess. I own a gun. Along with approximately 100 million other Americans, I have a gun in my home. My gun, a 12 gauge pump shotgun, came to me as part of my father’s estate when he died. The gun stands unloaded behind a stack of old clothes in the corner of my bedroom closet. I guess in case of a home invasion, I could use it as a club (or, I could hide behind the stack of old clothes.)
Like all Americans, gun owners or not, I’m watching with keen interest as President Obama and Congress struggle with developing new firearm policies in the wake of recent gun-related tragedies, such as that occurring in Newtown, Conn. And like others, I wonder how these new policies may impact the gun-ownership rights of Americans or the sovereignty of state and local governments to establish their own gun policies.
In anticipation of new, federally-imposed restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms, some state lawmakers in Texas and elsewhere have rushed to introduce legislation making it unlawful for state or federal officials to enforce any new restrictions on gun rights that might be approved by Congress or implemented by presidential executive order.
It is necessary to take such action before any national legislation is passed or even introduced, these lawmakers believe, because, as Texas legislator Steve Toth put it, “We can no longer depend on the federal government and this administration to uphold a Constitution that they no longer believe in. The liberties of the people and the sovereignty of our state are too important to just let the federal government take them away.”
Actually, though, the Civil War long ago resolved the question of whether a state or a state official can nullify or refuse to comply with federal law. Laws passed by Congress are, as the Constitution states and as the war validated, “the supreme law of the land.” Further, the Constitution provides that “Judges in every state shall be bound thereby.” So, too, are state legislators who swear, as part of their oath of office, to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Laws passed by Congress cannot be ignored by state officials, whether they like the laws or not. But any law deemed to violate the liberties of the people or the sovereignty of the state may be challenged through the courts. As recently as 2008, in the case District of Columbia v. Heller (554 U.S. 570), the Supreme Court ruled a federal gun law to violate the Second Amendment’s protection of an individual’s right to possess a firearm for “traditionally lawful purposes.” Similarly, in a 2010 case, the court found a gun control law passed by the city of Chicago to violate Second Amendment protections. There can be little doubt but that the current court would find any new law that unreasonably infringes upon Americans’ right to possess firearms to be in violation of Second Amendment protections.
Would it be more prudent for state officials to at least wait to see what, if any, new congressional or presidential actions are proposed before introducing legislation to nullify such actions — legislation that would, in any case, certainly be deemed unenforceable? The Supreme Court has shown ample willingness to defend our Second Amendment rights against overly intrusive action at either the federal or at the state and local level. Speaking as a gun owner myself, that’s good enough for me.
- Richard L. Cole is a school of urban and public affairs professor.