Gun Rights Groups Plan State-By-State Revolt

Gary Marbut isn’t aiming to eliminate federal gun laws. He just wants to make them much less relevant.

Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, is one of the leaders of a new grassroots movement that’s seeking to invoke the principle of states’ rights — including states’ own authority to regulate firearms — to thwart what he and his allies view as an increasingly overreaching federal government.

Politicians in Washington have “assumed power that many of us believe was not authorized under the limits of the Constitution,” Marbut said in an interview with CBSNews.com last week.

This modern-day federalist revolt began with a Montana state law recently signed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It says that firearms, ammunition, and accessories manufactured entirely inside Montana are not subject to federal regulation, including background checks for buyers and record-keeping requirements for sellers. They would remain subject to state regulation.

The law, which does not permit the manufacture of certain large-caliber weapons or machine guns, takes effect on October 1, 2009.

Montana is hardly alone: the Tennessee legislature has approved a nearly-identical bill, and others are pending in TexasAlaskaMinnesota, and South Carolina. About 10 other states, including Florida and Arizona, are reportedly considering similar measures, and a Colorado state legislator has publicly pledged to follow suit.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said on Friday that he would let the bill become law without his signature. (Bredesen vetoed one gun rights bill last month; the veto was overriden.)

While this federalism-inspired revolt has coalesced around gun rights, the broader goal is to dust off a section of the Bill of Rights that most Americans probably have paid scant attention to: the Tenth Amendment. It says that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The Tenth Amendment states that the federal government’s powers are limited only to what it has been “delegated,” and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1918 confirmed that the amendment “carefully reserved” some authority “to the states.” That view is echoed by statements made at the time the Constitution was adopted; New Hampshire explicitly said that states kept “all powers not expressly and particularly delegated” to the federal government.

The states “never gave the federal judiciary permission to erase the Tenth Amendment from the Constitution,” Marbut said. “We need to reacquaint them with the Tenth Amendment.”

Marbut says he plans a test case in federal court that would use the example of a Montana resident without a federal firearms license seeking to manufacture a made-in-Montana gun. “We can get this clarified,” he said. “I do not want any Montana citizen to face federal prison time.”

“It’s great PR for us,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation. “It’s keeping gun owners across the country excited and energized. It’s a way of taking the offensive when normally gun owners are on the defensive.”

The stakes are higher, of course, than just gun rights. If the judiciary somehow breathes new life into the Tenth Amendment, and curbs federal regulation of commerce taking place entirely within a state, that would let states bypass innumerable federal rules on everything from pharmaceuticals to children’s toys.

“It’s a response to federal overreaching,” Gottlieb says. “A lot of people supporting this cause couldn’t care less about firearms. They don’t want the Obama administration dictating what states can and can’t do. It’s a pushback against federal authority in general.”

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