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Justice Dept reminds red state it can't ignore federal gun laws

Missouri Republicans passed a law to prevent the enforcement of new federal gun laws in the state. The Justice Department reminded them they can't do that.
Image: Mike Parson
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks during a news conference, in St. Louis on Aug. 6, 2020.Jeff Roberson / AP file

President Biden and Democratic congressional leaders would welcome the opportunity to approve safeguards to prevent gun violence, but despite public attitudes on the subject, Republicans refuse to consider any new laws on the subject. This political dynamic has been the norm for many years, and it's unlikely to change anytime soon.

But there's a different kind of dispute unfolding in several Republican-led states, where the New York Times reports today on laws designed to "discourage or prohibit the enforcement of federal gun statutes." One state, in particular,

Missouri has become the latest state to throw down a broad challenge to the enforcement of federal firearms laws, as Republican-controlled state legislatures intensify their fierce political counterattack against President Biden's gun control proposals. A bill signed by Gov. Mike Parson over the weekend — at a gun store called Frontier Justice — threatens a penalty of $50,000 against any local police agency that enforces certain federal gun laws and regulations that constitute "infringements" of Second Amendment gun rights.

In other words, under Missouri's new policy, if local police departments enforce a gun law -- which is to say, a federal gun law -- that Missouri Republicans don't like, those police departments could face $50,000 fines.

If you're thinking, "Wait, states can't do that," then you agree with the Justice Department, which as the Associated Press reported this week, sent a reminder to officials in the Show Me State.

The Justice Department is warning Missouri officials that the state can't ignore federal law, after the governor signed a bill last week that bans police from enforcing federal gun rules. In a letter sent Wednesday night and obtained by The Associated Press, Justice officials said the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause outweighs the measure that Gov. Mike Parson signed into law Saturday.

According to the AP report, acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton reminded Missouri officials that their new measure "conflicts with federal firearms laws and regulation" and federal law would supersede the state's new statute. Boynton asked Gov. Mike Parson (R) and state Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R) to "clarify the law and how it would work" in a response the Justice Department wants to see by today.

In practical terms, the new state law is largely meaningless. As GOP proponents of the policy in Missouri concede, there are few real differences, at least right now, between state and federal gun laws. What Missouri Republicans are apparently concerned about is federal policies that may exist in the future, and their eagerness to ignore them, Constitutional Law 101 notwithstanding.

It's worth appreciating the significance of the underlying argument. The effort is generally known as "nullification": the idea that states can simply nullify national laws that states don't like and don't want to follow.

For many years, the idea was espoused by opponents of federal anti-slavery laws and civil rights statutes. Indeed, there was a rather spirited debate in the mid-19th century over whether states could choose to ignore federal laws, and the dispute was resolved by the U.S. Civil War.

Nullification advocates lost.

Nevertheless, this still comes up from time to time. Clearly, federal gun laws are a major part of the push, but Republicans have also raised the specter of nullification on issues such as marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act.

Before her election to the U.S. Senate, Iowa's Joni Ernst (R) delivered remarks suggesting she believed states can nullify federal laws. "You know we have talked about this at the state legislature before, nullification," the Iowa Republican said in 2013. "But, bottom line is, as U.S. Senator why should we be passing laws that the states are considering nullifying? Bottom line: our legislators at the federal level should not be passing those laws.... So, bottom line, no, we should not be passing laws as federal legislators -- as senators or congressman -- that the states would even consider nullifying. Bottom line."

The fact that such thinking lingers in Republican politics is, to put it mildly, discouraging.