TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A national gun control group is trying to bolster its legal and public case against a Kansas law challenging federal firearms regulations by arguing that it revives an old, discredited states-rights doctrine espoused decades ago by opponents of racial equality.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s linking of Kansas’ gun-rights policy to the rhetoric of Southern segregationists is particularly striking because of the notable place the state capital holds in the history of the civil rights movement. The city is home to a national historic site commemorating the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.
The Brady Campaign filed a federal lawsuit last week against a 2013 state law declaring that the federal government has no authority to regulate guns, ammunition and accessories manufactured, sold and kept only in Kansas. Brady officials argue that it is a blatantly unconstitutional attempt by a state to nullify federal laws.
“It’s ironic and disturbing that, on the 60th anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, the Kansas Legislature is thumbing its nose at federal laws and claiming it can nullify federal laws,” said Jonathan Lowy, who oversees legal challenges mounted by a center affiliated with the Brady campaign.
Supporters of the Kansas law dismiss the linkage as grandstanding by a group without much public support in a state with solid gun-rights majorities in its Legislature. Patricia Stoneking, president of the Kansas State Rifle Association, said tying gun-rights advocates’ assertion of state sovereignty to segregationists’ arguments from the 1950s is “ludicrous.”
Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said, “It’s unfortunate that the Brady center has chosen to file such a politicized lawsuit.”
The law makes it a felony for any U.S. government employee to attempt to enforce federal regulations for Kansas-only firearms, ammunition or accessories and allows lawsuits by the state attorney general or county prosecutors to block federal enforcement attempts. The statute also says no state or local official shall attempt to enforce any federal gun regulation for Kansas-only items.
Courts have routinely ruled that states cannot override federal laws. The U.S. Constitution declares itself and federal laws and treaties “the supreme Law of the Land.”
Kansas’ law is similar to ones in Alaska and Idaho, and supporters contend they’re not efforts at nullification. They’re written to apply to a limited number of guns that supporters believe won’t fall under the power clearly granted to the federal government under the U.S. Constitution to regulate interstate commerce.
However, a federal appeals court last year dismissed the argument in striking down a similar 2009 Montana law, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused twice to review the case.
So far, the law has been mostly a symbolic protest against the federal government. There have been no known attempts to arrest federal employees or lawsuits over federal enforcement actions. Stoneking said her group has advised individuals and groups to wait for legal challenges to be resolved, unless they are willing to serve as “a test case.”
The law also is a vehicle for Republican politicians in Kansas to showcase the depth of their opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration ahead of this year’s elections. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is a strong supporter of the law, and his re-election campaign sent out a fundraising email the day after the lawsuit was filed, seeking financial help for his “stand against the attacks from the Obama Administration and their gun-grabbing friends.”
Brady officials said they’re pursuing the lawsuit on behalf of Kansans who are concerned about public safety, listing five local campaign members by name in their lawsuit, including several who’ve experienced gun violence. The lawsuit said they’re concerned about state and local officials potentially refusing to enforce federal regulations that, for example, help trace firearms used in crimes or prevent immigrants in the U.S. illegally from owning guns.
The lawsuit said the Kansas statute “evokes” efforts by states in the 1950s to avoid integrating their public schools, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown.
“The Kansas Legislature’s attempt to nullify federal firearms laws is unlawful and void for precisely the same reason attempted nullification of desegregation laws was held unconstitutional,” the lawsuit said.
Nullification stems from ideas espoused by founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in response to the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, cracking down on dissent after the tumult of the French Revolution. The doctrine gained currency in the slave-holding South before the Civil War — and seemed dead for decades afterward.
The litigation argues that the Kansas law is in that long-rejected legal tradition.
But the Brady campaign also is working to build public support for federal firearms regulations in an environment in which state officials portray the federal government as the biggest threat to gun-ownership rights.
And so, the gun control group is making a point by reminding its broader, public audience that in the past, people who professed to be defending state sovereignty were on the wrong side of history.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.