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Alaska Shouldn’t Challenge Federal Gun Laws

by Alexei Painter (MPP Candidate '13)

As an Alaskan, I'm no stranger to guns - there was actually a shooting range in the basement of my elementary school (to be fair, it was closed during school hours). I've never had very strong feelings about the gun issue because I can see merit in both sides of the debate.

That said, I think some gun rights advocates have completely lost their minds.

Last week, the Alaska House of Representatives, with bipartisan support, passed what's called a nullification law. Essentially, the bill says that federal gun laws are unconstitutional and therefore do not apply to Alaskans (something like how Californians believe that federal drug laws don't apply to them). It would authorize Alaskan law enforcement officers to arrest any federal agents who attempt to enforce those laws.

Guns are an important part of many Alaskans' identity, so the prospect of distant bureaucrats interfering with them is unpopular. And lest you think it's just those wackos in Palin-land who are trying this stuff, similar bills are on the move in 15 states. There's a bill in Montana that would allow county sheriffs to arrest federal agents on the charge of kidnapping if they try to enforce federal laws that the sheriff doesn't like.

Wherever you fall in the gun debate, you have to admit that Alaska's bill goes too far. (And, as the Alaska legislature's own attorneys advised, probably is unconstitutional.) Worse, such extreme state laws make it just more difficult to have an honest national debate about guns.

Proponents of the Alaskan bill say that the medical marijuana policies in states like California demonstrate that these states-versus-federal issues are not so cut and dried. However, it's one thing for medicinal pot growers to go to jail for violating a federal law - they do choose to grow an illegal drug for a living, after all. But nobody in California is asking state or local cops to bust federal drug enforcement agents.

I can understand why gun rights advocates would not want federal gun control laws enforced, but we live in a democracy. A recent Pew survey showed that 83 percent of Americans support background checks on gun buyers, and majorities back bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It's not as if federal gun laws would be some Obama conspiracy to pacify and control the people - these proposed measures are broadly popular.
In a democracy, you can't always get your way; sometimes you have to accept the will of the majority. If you disagree, then you should fight to change the public's view and bring Congress around to your side. Or vote the bums out and elect a Congress which will pass the legislation you want. But we ultimately have to accept the results of that process, even if we don't like them.

What's especially galling about these nullification bills is that they put law enforcement officers in the middle of a political game. Their job is tough enough without politicians using them as pawns in the battle over who controls government - the states or the feds. The democratic process should not create victims among the people tasked with carrying out our decisions.

So what's going to happen if this Alaskan bill becomes law? We could have a state trooper arrest a federal agent, then get thrown into federal prison himself for enforcing a clearly unconstitutional law. Or the trooper could ignore the state law. That's not a choice we should force them to make.

What's the best way to prevent future tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre? Would restrictions on gun ownership be more or less effective than armed guards? That's the debate we should have as a country. Instead, state lawmakers are pre-emptively condemning Congress and narrowing options for any kind of compromise. But maybe the democratic process is overrated? A Missouri legislator introduced a bill that would actually make it a felony for a legislator to propose any gun control bill, the legislative equivalent of the Unbreakable Vow in the Harry Potter books. Perhaps the always tenuous distinction between “state legislature” and “fantasy world” finally has crumbled.

Alexei Painter is a master's candidate at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and a student in the Graduate School of Journalism's opinion writing class. The post originally appeared in the SF Chronicle.