This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Across the country, a thriving dissatisfaction with the U.S. government is prompting a growing spate of bills in state legislatures aimed at defying federal control over firearms — more than 200 during the last decade, a News21 investigation found.
Particularly in Western and Southern states, where individual liberty intersects with increasing skepticism among gun owners, firearms are a political vehicle in efforts to ensure states’ rights and void U.S. gun laws within their borders. State legislators are attempting to declare that only they have the right to interpret the Second Amendment, a movement that recalls the anti-federal spirit of the Civil War and civil-rights eras.
“I think the president and the majority of Congress, both in the House and Senate, are just completely out of touch with how people feel about Second Amendment rights,” said Missouri state Sen. Brian Nieves, who has fought for bills to weaken the federal government’s authority over firearms in his state.
In Idaho, the Legislature unanimously passed a law to keep any future federal gun measures from being enforced in the state. In Kansas, a law passed last year says federal regulation doesn’t apply to guns manufactured in the state. Wyoming, South Dakota and Arizona have had laws protecting “firearms freedom” from the U.S. government since 2010.
A News21 analysis shows 14 such bills were passed by legislators in 11 states, mainly in Western states, along with Kansas, Tennessee and Alaska. Of those, 11 were signed into law, though one was later struck down in court. In Montana, Missouri and Oklahoma, three others were vetoed.
More than three-quarters of U.S. states have proposed nullification laws since 2008. More than half of those bills have come in the last two years after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. All but three have been introduced since President Barack Obama took office.
Underneath the policy jargon lies a culture of firearms woven into the heritage and politics of states whose histories were shaped by guns.
“(The federal government) is diving off into areas unchecked that they’re not supposed to be involved in,” said Montana state Rep. Krayton Kerns, who introduced a bill in 2013 to limit the ability of local police to help enforce federal laws. “Not only is it our right in state legislatures to do this, it’s our obligation to do it. Somebody’s got to put a 'whoa' on it.”
Opponents say it’s not federal gun regulation that’s unconstitutional, but laws to nullify it.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed a lawsuit against Kansas on July 9 to stop enforcement of the state’s recently passed Second Amendment Protection Act.