The politics of gun control is undergoing a fundamental change. Tomorrow night, President Obama is set to address gun control in his State of the Union address, with the presence of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Captain Mark Kelly adding a personal dimension to his push for action. Later this week, Obama will return to Chicago to bring the case for gun reform to a city whose South Side has been ravaged by handgun violence.
Congress is listening like never before. Senator Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats on guns, now says that he’s serious about gun control. A ban on high-capacity magazines and universal background checks stand racetrack odds of passing, which would have been unimaginable even a few months ago. While the exact package isn’t clear yet, gun control at the federal level is poised to succeed.
With this writing on the wall, Republicans are now turning away from the feds and going to the states to advance their agenda. In Arizona, the state legislature may consider a bill to prevent federal government employees from enforcing gun laws. State Representative Steve Smith, the sponsor of the bill, had a clear message: “Stay out with your federal regulations you’re going to impose on us.” Similar bills are underway in Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and other states. Some sheriffs in Montana have even said they wouldn’t enforce new federal gun regulations they disagree with.
While these bills are undoubtedly unconstitutional, they are also disingenuous. For the past twenty years, the pro-gun lobby has been willing to undermine local approaches to gun policy when it suited their objectives. Now that the pro-gun lobby no longer dictates national policy, it is desperately trying to repackage its extremism and sell it as federalism.
Not so long ago, cities across the country were leading the fight to curb gun violence. In the late 1990s, for instance, a coalition of thirty cities and counties brought lawsuits against the gun industry demanding that manufacturers install safety devices on weapons.
Without hesitation, the NRA and pro-gun Republicans ran to the federal government for redress. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 banned cities and states from suing gun companies in all but a few circumstances. This was an unprecedented exertion of federal authority against the ability of cities and states to enforce product liability laws. When President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, Wayne LaPierre said that this was the “most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.” No whining then about federal power; the NRA was willing to use the power of the federal government to get a special protection for the gun industry.
Ultimately, the law forced the courts to throw out the suits from the local governments. Judge Brook Hedge of the DC Superior Court dismissed the District of Columbia’s lawsuit against gun manufacturers. She lamented that while assault weapons have “pernicious consequences for the health and safety of District residents and visitors,” she had no choice but to dismiss the lawsuit because Congress “has trumped local law by passing legislation to protect the profits of such manufacturers.”