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Alaska House passes bill challenging federal gun restrictions

  • The Anchorage Daily News
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at 6:15 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 12, 2013, at 2:11 p.m.

— In a chamber dotted with female legislators wearing new camo scarves, the Alaska state House on Monday passed a gun measure that is wildly popular among the GOP-controlled Legislature even though it raises serious constitutional issues.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 69, which passed 31-5 on Monday after a lengthy and impassioned debate.

It declares that guns and ammunition possessed by Alaskans are exempt from federal gun laws. It also subjects federal agents to felony charges if they try to enforce any future federal ban on semi-automatic weapons or ammunition or enforce any new federal requirement for gun registration.

A legal opinion from a legislative lawyer said the measure likely is unconstitutional. When federal and state laws conflict, the U.S. Constitution declares that federal law is supreme, legislative counsel Kathleen Strasbaugh wrote in a Jan. 30 memorandum.

Republicans said they are willing to let the courts sort out the issues. They said that they must stand up for Second Amendment gun rights and won't bow down to the federal government on this. A number said they heard from constituents who back the bill.

Some Democrats argued that the measure puts Alaskans at risk of criminal prosecution if they ignore federal gun laws. While the bill allows the state to defend Alaskans charged with violating a federal gun law, there's no guarantee of that help or any sign the federal government will back off.

Alaska is joining other states angrily pushing back against proposed new federal gun restrictions in the wake of the December school massacre in Connecticut.

Chenault's bill is similar to one from Wyoming, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said. At least 15 states are looking at laws to resist any new federal gun controls, according to a New York Times story earlier this month.

"I hope to God that the federal government gets the point that states want to have a voice," said Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, who carried the speaker's bill on the floor.

FEDS NOT BACKING OFF

The U.S. Attorney for Alaska, Karen Loeffler, said federal gun laws have been and will continue to be an effective tool for the FBI and other federal agencies, along with state and municipal partners. Federal gun laws were integral in the case against Fairbanks militia commander Schaeffer Cox and his right-wing compatriots in which judges' lives were threatened, she noted. Dozens of federal gun cases are brought a year in Alaska, she estimated.

"We are going to use federal gun laws in the same ways that we always have, to fight violence in the community," Loeffler said in a telephone interview Monday. She had no direct comment on the state legislation, but said federal cases are often made with the help of state troopers who identify dangerous people in rural communities.

Chenault said in an email that his proposal isn't intended to interfere with prosecutions like that of the Fairbanks militia.

"They are completely different issues. House Bill 69 concerns federal over-reach and is a statement of support and state protection of Alaskans' 2nd Amendment right," said Chenault, who celebrated his birthday Monday along with the passage of his bill.

The debate Monday was emotional.

The penalty for violating an earlier, now-lapsed federal ban on semi-automatic assault rifles was up to five years in prison, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, reminded his fellow House members. And interfering with a federal officer performing his or her duties could lead to a year in jail, or even longer.

"I'm not comfortable telling my constituents to go ahead and do something that'll land them in jail just because I don't like the way the federal government regulates things," Gara said.

Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, said the measure was unconstitutional and unenforceable, and it distracts the Legislature from more important measures, including a rewrite of state oil tax law.

A fellow Anchorage Democrat, Andy Josephson, said he thought the measure was "secessionist talk." Maybe the House is just trying to make a statement, he said, but it's the Legislature's job to cull out what can't work. He's newly elected and only took the oath of office 41 days earlier. Now he's being asked to violate his vow to uphold the constitution, he said.

'LAWS THAT HAPPEN TO US'

Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Democrat from Barrow who is aligned with the Republicans, said too many times, the federal government took action that affected Alaska Natives -- creating national parks and refuges, for instance -- without them even realizing what was happening. He said he was torn on the gun measure. But he didn't like "all these laws that happen to us."

"I've got to admit, I have a Mini-14 and I use it all the time for hunting," Nageak said, referring to a popular semi-automatic rifle. "I really don't want to give up what I have right now."

Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, said in his view, the Second Amendment lets citizens possess the same weapons as the military.

"Therefore, if the government can afford an F-22, and I as a private citizen can afford to own an F-22, this article gives me the right to own exactly the same kind of armament that the federal government has," Isaacson said. "That may sound like it's way on the edge."

But the citizenry is supposed to be able to protect itself on equal footing, he said.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, said the legal opinion on constitutionality just comes from one lawyer. Maybe it's wrong, she said.

Former U.S. Attorney Bob Bundy said in an interview that it is well established that the state Legislature cannot void a federal law.

House Bill 69 "is not worth the paper it is written on," he said.

If the measure becomes law, and if Congress did pass a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, it's not clear that state law enforcement authorities would have much appetite for filing felony charges against federal agents.

Any such cases would likely end up in federal court anyway, Richard Svobodny, deputy attorney general over the criminal division, said recently.

Back in the mid-1980s, troopers charged federal fish and wildlife agents with illegally shooting a sow that was hanging around a fuel barrel and interfering with their efforts to refuel a plane and leave, said Bill Ingaldson, who at the time was the junior state prosecutor who handled the case.

The case was moved to federal court and the federal agents argued they were immune because they were on the job. After a court ruling in favor of the federal agents, "the case went away," Ingaldson said in an interview. The thinking was "this is kind of crazy, to have law enforcement officers arresting each other."

SCARVES FROM NORDSTROM

In wrapping up the debate, Millett said nothing is more pressing to Alaskans than gun rights, disagreeing with Gruenberg. As to Gara's concerns, she said, maybe he should introduce legislation repealing state marijuana laws, since state law is more liberal than federal law.

The federal government shouldn't be dictating what's allowable for Alaska's legal gun owners, she said.

"I am so offended by that, Mr. Speaker," Millett said.

Other gun bills also are moving quickly through the Legislature. House members are poised to consider on Wednesday Millet's resolution urging President Obama to rescind his 23 executive orders related to firearms and safety, and urging Congress not to pass laws that restrict gun rights.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, again is backing a "stand your ground" bill expanding the use of deadly force in self defense. House Bill 24 was being heard in House Finance on Monday. He proposed a similar bill in the last Legislature that cleared the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Gov. Sean Parnell hasn't taken a position on Chenault's bill or Millett's resolution -- he generally doesn't speak out on resolutions -- but backs "stand your ground," his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email.

On House Bill 69, Republicans all backed it, and Democrats were split. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka and Harriet Drummond, Gara, Gruenberg and Josephson of Anchorage voted against it. Anchorage Democrats Chris Tuck and Geran Tarr, who are part of the Democrat minority, joined with the Republicans.

Tuck asked for a reconsideration vote, which is set for Wednesday. Tuck wants to give the absent Rep. Scott Kawasaki, a Fairbanks Democrat and National Rifle Association lifetime member, a chance to vote for the bill, aides said.

As to the scarves, Millett said she and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, bought them at Nordstrom. They passed them out to female legislators in the Republican-led caucus.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com.

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