by Dennis Henigan
I refer to the extraordinary legislation passed into law by the states of Montana and Tennessee declaring that guns or ammunition manufactured and retained entirely within the borders of those states are “not subject to federal law.” Apparently, similar legislation has been introduced in Texas, Alaska, Minnesota, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Colorado.
Can a state unilaterally exempt its homemade products from the reach of federal law? Only if it is prepared to defy the United States Constitution.
Under the Constitution, Congress has certain enumerated powers, including the power “to regulate Commerce . . . among the several states.” In its 2005 ruling in Gonzales v. Raich, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle, first set out in the Depression-era case of Wickard v. Filburn, that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate purely intrastate activity involving a product, if it rationally concludes that to leave such activity unregulated would undercut its regulation of interstate commerce in the product. In Gonzales, the Supreme Court upheld Congressional power to ban the possession and use of marijuana, even by a California resident who cultivated her own marijuana and used it for personal medical purposes within the state entirely in accord with state law.
There is no doubt that, under these Supreme Court rulings, Congress has the power to regulate the manufacture and sale of guns that never cross the borders of Montana or Tennessee. Although some may disagree with this reading of the Commerce Clause, the more fundamental point is that, under our Constitution, the scope of federal Commerce Clause power is not for individual states to decide. In addition to misunderstanding the Commerce Clause, legislators in Montana and Tennessee seem prepared to defy the Supremacy Clause, under which federal enactments “shall be the supreme Law of the Land . . . .” As the High Court made clear in Gonzales, “the Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail,” meaning that “state action cannot circumscribe Congress’ plenary commerce power.” The Gonzales Court expressly rejected Justice Thomas’ radical suggestion in dissent that “States possess the power to dictate the extent of Congress’ commerce power . . . .” Isn’t that exactly what Montana and Tennessee think they have done?
The idea that states can unilaterally “opt out” of federal law is not new. Its ancestors range from the 18th century Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution, who thought only the states should have the power to regulate commerce, to John C. Calhoun’s nullification doctrine that led to the Civil War, to Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway defying the Attorney General of the United States, who was enforcing a federal order requiring the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama. In short, on the issue of gun control, Montana and Tennessee have cast their lot with the historic “losers” in the great constitutional debate over state vs. federal power.
The enforceability of federal gun laws against purely intrastate conduct in Montana and Tennessee seems destined for the federal courts. The question arises: If these states believe they have the authority to exempt gun manufacturing and sales from federal law, do they also claim the authority to defy federal court rulings – even by the Supreme Court – to the contrary? Is secession next?