Even as President Joe Biden’s White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill move to combat an epidemic of gun violence nationwide through executive orders and legislative action, Republicans governors and state lawmakers are racing to short-circuit such efforts by turning their states into “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” where federal restrictions would be flouted and agents would find their work stymied.
That fight made its way to the Pennsylvania Capitol on Wednesday, as two Republican lawmakers in the state Senate rolled out their own proposal aimed at frustrating federal gun violence reduction measures by “[prohibiting] the enforcement of any new federal restriction, prohibition or registration requirement for firearms, magazines and ammunition,” the bill’s prime sponsors, Sens. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors for their bill.
The legislation, now before the Senate State Government Committee, also would forbid state and local governments from using any resources to “enforce any new federal restriction, prohibition or registration requirement on the purchase or ownership of firearms, and firearm accessories, which are currently legal products in Pennsylvania.”
During a Capitol rally, Mastriano, Dush, and the bill’s supporters cast the fight for the legislation as a rebuttal to a federal government that’s become too intrusive and moving steadily to erode Americans’ Second Amendment rights.
(Erich Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, speaks at a Capitol press conference on Wednesday, 5/12/21, Capital-Star video by John L. Micek)
Pointing to a Benjamin Franklin’s famous aphorism about the risk of trading liberty for temporary security, which is carved into a granite relief on the Capitol steps, Mastriano said he was “disenchanted by how many of our rights are under attack.”
He and Dush rattled off a litany of conservative concerns about government overreach, disputing Biden’s recent contention last month that “no constitutional amendment is absolute,” arguing that the right to arms is inviolable and further buttressed by stronger language in the Pennsylvania constitution asserting that the right to keep and bear arms in self-defense “shall not be questioned.”
“For those words to be uttered by the Leader of the Free World is disconcerting,” Mastriano said, adding that he felt “lucky” to be living in a federal system where states could set their own rules.
But Mastriano’s interpretation might be an elastic one, one expert suggested.
“It is true that ‘shall not be questioned’ symbolizes the desire of framers to grant the highest protection,” Bruce Ledewitz, a constitutional law professor at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh, and a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said.
“On the other hand, I am not aware of anyone distinguishing shall not be infringed in the second amendment from shall not be questioned. The Pennsylvania courts have not interpreted gun rights more broadly that I remember,” Ledewitz continued.
The national picture
Even so, Mastriano is hardly alone arguing for the constitutional sanctity of gun rights and what he sees as federal efforts to short-circuit them.
So far, lawmakers in Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Wyoming, and Arizona, along with around 400 counties in 20 states have designated themselves as “sanctuary states,” according to Insider. Republican lawmakers in Texas also are pushing such legislation.
In Pennsylvania, county governments, including Washington County in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as neighboring Fayette and Greene counties, voted to designate themselves sanctuary counties, according to WPXI-11, a Pittsburgh television station.
Last year, Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, said she’d pledged to work with local officials and law enforcement in two counties in her north-central Pennsylvania district to pass “Second Amendment Sanctuary” ordinances.
While proponents see these ordinances and legislative proposals as a needed safeguard, gun violence reduction advocates are warning about the destructive nature, arguing that they derail legitimate efforts to combat gun violence.
“The only real world impact of this bill would be to endanger the lives of Pennsylvanians by creating an imaginary concept that federal gun safety laws can be ignored,” Adam Garber, executive director of the gun-violence reduction group, CeaseFire PA, said in an e-mail. “Escalating this illegal nullification, which is exactly how the courts will see this, from places like Carbon County to the state level raises the stakes and magnifies the impact of this dangerous policy.
“Even worse, it is hypocritical of Senator Mastriano to try and override federal law while standing in the way of local elected officials who are trying to enact their own laws to save lives from gun violence,” Garber argued.
Since Biden’s election, gun sales have skyrocketed over fears of forthcoming gun control legislation, a trend that has been happening in Pennsylvania as well as nationally. And the sanctuary measures are a part of that response.
But as one expert tells Insider, the legislation is largely symbolic, because, while they can try to bar states from cooperating with federal authorities, they cannot stop federal authorities from enforcing federal law. Mastriano and the bill’s supporters acknowledged the same on Wednesday. The bill also would likely face a guaranteed veto from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
But in the event it were eventually passed, and local authorities opted out, then “the FBI, ATF, and Department of Justice can still enforce federal law there,” Darrell Miller, co-faculty director of the Center for Firearms Law and a faculty member at Duke Law School, told Insider.
Speaking to Insider, Miller cited the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which holds that the nation’s foundational document “shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
On the other hand, the existence of such statutes can make it more difficult for federal officials to enforce the law — which it the idea, Insider reported. And on Wednesday, Mastriano, Dush, and their backers also hammered that idea home.
“You own the government,” Dush said. “This bill makes sure that if anyone in any government usurps your authority, they’ll pay the price.”