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Feds Can't Force States To Enforce Federal Gun Control

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

From the moment he took office, President Joe Biden wanted to pass gun control. The problem was that he didn’t have quite enough seats in the Senate to force it through no matter what.

However, the Senate is in a precarious position. It doesn’t take all that many Republican lawmakers to cross the aisle to make gun control a reality. It’s concerning, especially since some senators are less than trustworthy, in my opinion. Thus far, though, everyone has held firm. That’s good news.

Many states aren’t willing to bet on it. They’ve passed laws saying that state and local officials cannot enforce federal gun control laws.

Unsurprisingly, this has many in an uproar. How dare they! I mean, sure, there are governments refusing to enforce immigration law, but this is totally different. They argue that states can and should be compelled to enforce gun control.

Well, it sucks to be them, because the federal government can’t force them to do anything.

When state and local officials decline to help enforce federal firearm rules they view as unconstitutional, The New York Times says, they are adopting “a legally shaky but politically potent strategy” with racist roots.

But when state and local officials decline to help enforce federal immigration rules they view as “unjust, self-defeating and harmful to public safety,” the Times says, they should be “proud” of “choos[ing] not to participate in deportation crackdowns.”

That blatant double standard illustrates how policy preferences and partisan allegiances color people’s views of federalism, which they tend to endorse when it serves their purposes and reject when it doesn’t. But as Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Eric Schmitt recently observed while defending that state’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, “you cannot have it both ways.”

Contrary to what the Times reported, that policy is not “legally shaky.” It relies on the well-established anti-commandeering doctrine, which says the federal government cannot compel state and local officials to enforce its criminal laws or regulatory schemes.

That doctrine is rooted in the basic design of our government, which limits Congress to a short list of specifically enumerated powers and leaves the rest to the states or the people, as the 10th Amendment makes clear. That division of powers gives states wide discretion to experiment with different policies, some of which are bound to offend the Times.

The paper suggests that defending state autonomy is disreputable, because that argument was “deployed in the past in the South to resist antislavery and civil rights laws.” But federalism does not give states a license to violate rights guaranteed by the Constitution or to flout laws authorized by it.

Precisely.

While slavery and segregation were awful episodes in American history, that doesn’t negate the entire concept of federalism. That is one that’s been encoded in our national DNA from the start, as it should be.

Plus, as writer Jacob Sullum notes, the left didn’t seem to have a problem with it when federalism worked in favor of illegal immigrants. Of course, they had no issue ignoring federalism when a state wanted to actually enforce those same laws, so I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised at their hypocrisy.

Look, these laws won’t stop state laws that mimic federal laws, and many of these states do have such laws. Police won’t be sued because they enforced a law that happens to look like a federal measure but is mirrored in state law.

The real reason this is an issue, though, is that it shows just how much of the nation opposes such measures. Anti-gunners can’t stand the idea that there are portions of the country that will actively oppose such measures to the best of their ability. That’s why this is a problem.

That’s also why sanctuary state measures are so important.