By Benjamin Goad - 03/17/13 10:00 AM EDT
A growing number of states are moving forward with legislation to exempt them from new federal gun controls and, in some cases, brand as criminals anyone who tries to enforce them.
While many of the bills are considered symbolic or appear doomed to fail, the legislative explosion reflects a backlash against legislative and regulatory efforts in Washington to tamp down on gun violence.
As of this week, at least 28 states had taken up consideration of gun bills this year, according to new data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than 70 bills have been put forward in all.
In addition to dozens of bills pending in the House and Senate, the Justice Department and other agencies are moving ahead 23 executive actions announced by President Obama in January.
The state bills vary in content and scope, but most are meant to nullify federal regulations that place new restrictions on gun rights, or other measures viewed as encroaching on the Second Amendment.
A bill approved this month by Utah’s House of Representatives, for example, was designed to assert the state’s rights to enforce its own gun laws, according to its author, GOP Rep. Brian Greene.
“We saw all of this activity in D.C.,” Greene said, referring to the legislative efforts and a series of roundtable meetings held by Obama’s taskforce on gun violence. “It became apparent immediately that state jurisdiction was irrelevant to them.”
The bill effectively died this week, when the state’s legislative session ended, but Greene said he might introduce it when the legislature reconvenes.
In Montana, a similar bill prohibiting state or local police from enforcing a federal assault weapons ban has passed both houses of the state legislature and awaits reconciliation between the two chambers before it goes to the governor.
Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has not revealed his position on the bill.
Montana went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by double digits in November. And GOP Rep. Krayton Kerns, who penned the legislation, noted that Bullock would be up for reelection in a few years.
“He probably needs one gun rights vote,” Kerns said. “Maybe this will be it.”
Kerns said he introduced the bill in response to the federal actions.
“Obviously they’re making an assault on the Second Amendment,” he said.
The Montana bill was the first to pass both chambers of a state legislature, though many others — from Alaska to Vermont — are still pending.
Some go further than the Utah and Montana proposals, including a bill awaiting action in an Arizona House committee. That measure would make a felon of any law enforcement officer — including federal authorities — who attempts to enforce a federal law or regulation on a firearm that is made or maintained in the state.
UCLA law Professor Adam Winkler, an expert in the politics of gun control, said states are not at liberty to disregard federal laws and predicted few, if any, of the bills would be enacted.
“This is really about symbolic politics,” Winkler said. “They want to make a stand.”
But state lawmakers insisted their efforts were not for show. State Rep. Mark Patterson of Idaho said his bill is not intended to “thumb our nose at Washington.”
Patterson said his bill is meant ease concerns in his rural district, which is home to bears, mountain lions and a deeply rooted rural hunting culture. He said the bill is meant to ensure state and local officers would not be required to confiscate weapons deemed in violation of federal statutes.
“They don’t want to start taking the guns of their friends and neighbors,” he said. “People are scared about what they’re hearing on the news.”
In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, the president announced 23 separate executive actions meant to reduce gun violence. Some amount of progress has been made on at least 18 of those, according to information provided by the White House this week.
But the debate hinges on Congress. There are now around 50 bills related to gun control pending in the House and Senate.
Among them is legislation offered by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), meant to crack down on gun trafficking. The bill targets “straw buyers,” who purchase firearms with the intent of delivering them to criminal interests.
“Getting the guns out of the hands of the wrong people is an important goal,” Maloney said.
She said gun control advocates in Congress were merely proposing minimum standards.
“States can legislate what they want,” she said, but would ultimately have to follow federal gun laws.
Passing many of those laws through the divided Congress will be no easy feat, but Maloney said she sees momentum in some areas.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s controversial assault weapons ban, setting the stage for consideration by the full Senate.
The California Democrat said the measure would “dry up” the supply of military-style weapons readily available to the public.
“These weapons are being used by grievance killers, the mentally unstable and others to kill significant numbers of people in our malls, our theaters, our workplaces and our schools,” Feinstein said.
Greene, the Utah legislator, said the issue goes beyond guns. Regardless of what becomes of the flurry of bills that have cropped up around the country, he said states would continue to resist government actions viewed as overreach.
“This is the beginning of a trend where states are going to try to force the federal government back on track,” he said.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the current governor of Montana. This post was corrected at 1:04 p.m.