Commentary: Gun laws and forgetting our history

Jan 21, 2013

Pretty much everyone remembers George Santayana’s famous saying that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about the Republicans in Michigan’s state senate, but he could have been.

Real life is different from fiction. In the real world, things happen that are just too crazy for anyone to make up. And if there’s any political question that we can say has been settled for all time, it is that federal law always trumps state law. When they conflict, federal law is the law.

In the early days of the republic, this wasn’t so clear. Back when Andrew Jackson was President, John C. Calhoun maintained a state could nullify any federal law it thought was unconstitutional.

Old Hickory, who wasn’t exactly the subtle type, said if anybody tried that, he would personally hang them from the nearest tree. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court backed President Jackson.

Thirty years later, the issue of national rights over state rights was settled forever by our violent and bloody civil war. Since then, a whole host of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that no state can enact a law that contradicts federal law.

But State Senator Phil Pavlov and a dozen of his colleagues evidently don’t believe it. Last week, they introduced a bill that would prohibit federal regulation of any firearms and ammunition manufactured in Michigan.

Pavlov, who is neither a lawyer nor a college graduate, said he thinks “we are under a constant threat by the federal government to infringe on our Second Amendment rights.”

Evidently he missed the fact that the Second Amendment is part of the federal, not state, Constitution, and that the U.S. Supreme Court, not some local state senator, is charged with deciding what does and does not infringe on anybody’s constitutional rights.

To emphasize this, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sent a cautionary letter warning that federal law does indeed supersede state law, and no matter what any legislature may pass, all provisions of any federal gun control acts still apply.

My guess is that most of the co-sponsors of this bill really don’t expect it to pass. They may be trying to appease radical firearms supporters, possibly even get some campaign contributions from them. They have to know that even if they pass this bill, it would be politically meaningless.

But merely introducing this legislation is, frankly, completely improper, and shows a profound and dangerous lack of understanding as to how American democracy works. This has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the issue.

Let’s say we lived in a culturally very liberal state which decided to completely outlaw handgun possession. Imagine that Democrats in that legislature moved a bill saying federal law permitting firearms had no jurisdiction in their state. That would be just as illegal and inappropriate as what this group of state senators is trying to do.

What’s ironic is that Pavlov is a Republican, and I expect admires his party’s greatest leader, Abraham Lincoln. If he did some reading, however, he would find what Lincoln thought of anybody who refused to recognize the primacy of federal laws. Essentially, he felt they were traitors.                  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.