JUNEAU — A handful of Alaska lawmakers have thrust their state into the national debate over gun control by setting up a showdown with the federal government that some consider treasonous and others defend as patriotic.
They say that unlike people in most of the rest of the nation, many Alaskans use firearms on a daily basis and that any regulation attempt by the federal government represents an undue encroachment on their constitutional rights.
In response to the perceived threat of a sweeping reaction from Washington, D.C., to recent mass shootings — including the rampages in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. — they’ve proposed legislation that would make any new federal law limiting gun rights unenforceable in Alaska, using “nullification bills.”
Such measures, which have always been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, make it a state crime to enforce federal law and have been blamed for inflaming some of the nation’s most turbulent eras — including touching off the Civil War.
Supporters who have pushed such legislation in defense of gun rights this year — including lawmakers in 16 other states, mostly in the South and West —say the bills are necessary to fight back against federal overreach and that the U.S. Constitution demands they take such action.
“Federal courts have often leaned toward favoring federal power over state sovereignty in spite of the fact that our Founding Fathers clearly intended otherwise,” said Alaska Republican state Rep. Wes Keller, in his sponsor statement of his bill that challenges federal authority.
“It is an illogical perversion of one of our most important founding principles to presume states must comply with unconstitutional federal language,” he added.
Opponents also point to the Constitution to say that the nation is hinged in part on the notion that federal law trumps state law, protecting civil rights, voting rights and other liberties Americans have come to expect.
“States cannot effectively ignore or countermand federal law,” says Hugh Spitzer, a professor of law at the University of Washington.
In order to challenge federal authority, Spitzer said, states have to challenge the constitutionality of a given law before the Supreme Court, “or they can try to get their senators or congressmen to repeal the federal law, or they can try to secede from the United States.”
He added later that the debate was settled with the Civil War.
Across the nation, many nullification bills already have died. And many others appear headed for a similar fate, but the recent advance highlights an increasingly vigorous political fight that centers on this question: When it comes to big-picture topics, whose right is it to decide?
In Alaska, the two Republican-sponsored joint resolutions making their way through the state House and Senate, clearly aim to make the case that gun rights are a state-level issue. The proposals seek to have President Barack Obama rescind the 23 executive actions on gun violence he signed on Jan. 16, about a month after the Connecticut school shooting.
Obama’s executive orders address mental health issues and provide authorities more training, among other provisions. None of the orders specifically mention restricting gun ownership or banning certain types of weapons or accessories.
Additional proposals are being discussed in Congress, but no measures have advanced. Still, the Obama administration has become a magnet for criticism among gun rights supporters.
“We as a culture tend to overreact to crazies,” said Republican state Sen. Fred Dyson.
He added, “There’s quite a bit of activity in Congress to regulate firearms, and all of us worry that that’s headed toward registration.”
To those who hold such concerns, people who would restrict gun rights simply cannot empathize with their lifestyle.
“Here in Alaska, firearms are tools to us,” said Jim West, owner of the Wild West Guns, which has locations in Anchorage and Las Vegas. “We carry them around for bear protection. We feed our families with them.”
Another Alaska measure, proposed by GOP House Speaker Mike Chenault, calls for criminal penalties for authorities who try to enforce federal regulations in the state that would assert control over firearms.
“Tragedy is not a license for federal encroachment on constitutionally protected freedoms,” Chenault said in a statement.
It’s unclear whether the proposals have a chance of passing.
“The devil is in the details,” said Republican state Sen. John Coghill, speaking about Chenault’s measure. He was reluctant to speculate, but said the issue “is probably a hot enough topic where enough people would agree on some statement.”
Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, however, said Chenault’s bill is “clearly unconstitutional.”
Spitzer, the Washington law professor, explains some of the historical context of such measures.
Proponents of nullification 200 years ago “took the position that the United States was created by the states,” he said.
“Daniel Webster, who debated against nullification, took the position that the United States was formed by the people of the United States, not the states,” Spitzer added, citing the first line of the Constitution.
“And that difference — between whether the United States was formed by the states, or was formed by all the people of the United States — is the fundamental difference that was fought over in the Civil War,” he said. “The North won, that is the end of it. Period.”
The nullification debate still cycles every so often. Such bills have been used to defend school segregation during the 1950s and laws that seek to overrule federal authority over marijuana have advanced more recently.
As gun rights prompt the latest round of debates, House Majority Leader Rep. Lance Pruitt promises that the issue won’t distract the state Legislature from their priorities this session — oil production, cheaper energy for Alaskans and the economy.
“I think one of the things that’s been important to both members of our caucus as well as Alaskans is to maintain that Second Amendment right” to bear arms, Pruitt said at a press conference last month.
“We will do whatever we can to defend that right,” he said. But if no new legislation passes on the issue lawmakers will not “feel that we failed.”
McBeath, the Alaska Fairbanks professor, says this sort of legislation can be expected every so often, even if it ultimately goes nowhere.
Politicians “do some grandstanding every once in a while,” he said. “It’s symbolic.”