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Federal trumps state

Feb 22, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

It's an unpleasant lesson that state legislators are learning on gun laws

Amid the increased pressure nationally to tighten gun-ownership rules following the ghastly shooting of first-grade school children in Newtown, Conn., gun friendly legislators in Wyoming moved quickly to answer what they clearly perceive to be a threat.

A couple of different bills related to guns have surfaced during the Wyoming Legislature's ongoing session, generally without much fanfare. The most conspicuous has been a bill that would make it illegal for a federal law enforcement agent to try to enforce a federal gun-control law in Wyoming.

That bill is a problem, and no less a gun-rights advocate than Gov. Matt Mead has stood up to say so.

It's one thing to pass a bill expressing disagreement with a federal law, or to call for its amendment or repeal. But a state can't just pass a bill vowing to arrest a federal agent who tries to enforce a federal law.

A general rule of government in this country is "federal trumps state." Like it or not, that is the way things are unless an exception is made very specifically to countermand it. The prime example of such an exception is the landmark Roe vs. Wade court ruling from 1973. It declared that abortion could not be made illegal in the United States, but that individual states could regulate it. And that's exactly what many states have done, in different ways and to varying degrees.

That, however, is a far different proposition from a law which says, essentially, that federal gun laws can't be enforced in Wyoming.

Gov. Mead is more than an elected politician. He's also a former U.S. Attorney. As such he has both a deep understanding of and, dare we say it, an appreciation for federal law. Recently it has fallen to him to tell the legislators pushing this law that it just won't fly. Implied strongly in the governor's words is the fact that if Wyoming were to test the federal-trumps-state principle, it would lose -- perhaps with trouble attached.

The law would have no legal standing, and there's no point in having laws on the books that have no legal standing. Such a law isn't really a law.

State senators have the bill this week, and they have been working to find a way around these objections. That's going to be a high hurdle. It's likely that the best they can hope for is something that makes a statement of disapproval but falls short of requiring a local sheriff's deputy or patrol officer to try to arrest a federal agent.

Aside from all of this is the strong likelihood that no federal gun legislation with enough teeth to worry a responsible, law-abiding Wyoming gun owner is given even a slight chance of passing Congress. President Obama got a lot of publicity for his soaring rhetoric about federal gun legislation during the State of the Union address last month, but careful listeners know that he wasn't urging such laws to be passed. All he said was "they deserve a vote" -- nothing more.

There are things a state legislature can do, and there are things it can't. One of the latter is trying to supersede federal law with state law. We'd do well not to spend much more time trying.

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Legislature, Wyoming