State Gun Laws Aim At Dodging Federal Regulation

Seven states have passed laws saying guns that are made, bought and owned in that state aren't subject to federal regulation. And nearly two dozen more are considering it. Defenders say the Firearms Freedom Act puts the federal government on notice; critics argue that a hands-off approach doesn't work.

Gun-rights advocates are making their voices heard across the country. Their latest strategy is a state-by-state campaign to pass the Firearms Freedom Act. It says that firearms made, bought and retained within a particular state aren't subject to federal regulation.

Versions of this act are being considered in nearly two dozen states. Seven others have already passed it: Arizona, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

Toss in a couple of other recent developments — visitors allowed to carry loaded and concealed weapons in national parks, and a push for gun owners to wear their weapons in public — and it's clear that "open carry" advocates are on a roll.

The View From Wyoming

Mark Spungin and his wife, Beverly, are standing in their eastern Wyoming home, in what used to be their daughter's bedroom. Now it's the reloading room, where they keep shelves of ammunition. There are several guns leaning in corners and resting near the foot of the bed. Mark picks one up.

"This is the M1A," he says. "They're beautiful rifles. It's a semi-automatic, the civilian version of the M14. When I went to basic training, and I got my hands on one for the first time, I fell in love with it. And that was 40-some years ago. I'm in love with these."

Spungin heads the Wyoming State Shooting Association, and he worked to get the Firearms Freedom Act passed in Wyoming. He's a firm believer in the Second Amendment, and he's written a novel that he describes as "possible prophecy." In it, an oppressive leftist government ratifies a national gun ban, and some in Wyoming resist. Spungin says the Firearms Freedom Act is putting the federal government on notice.

"It's like this — when I go on a hike, sometimes I'll hear a buzzing noise," he says. "And I'm not going to stick my hand in where the buzzing noise is. I'll just go somewhere else. And this is the buzzing noise that we're sending to Washington, you know. Keep your hand out of here."

Critics Worry About Patchwork Regulation

But gun-control advocates say hands-off doesn't work.

"This is an issue of common sense on how do we, as a country, make it harder for dangerous people to get guns," says Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

To be clear, the states that have passed the Firearms Freedom Act aren't proposing the complete deregulation of guns made in that state. Most states prohibit gun ownership for felons and people with severe mental illness. And most don't allow fully automatic weapons made in that state.

But while federal regulations require background checks, some states do not. And under the Firearms Freedom Act, states are claiming the right to set the rules for themselves. Helmke says that could be damaging.

"If different states have different rules on these sorts of things, really it's going to help contribute to the whole system falling apart," he says.

For people who keep tabs on political movements in rural places, the popularity of the Firearms Freedom Act is no big surprise. It's tied to larger trends of anger toward federal control.

"People are insistent that the federal government is not to be trusted," says Catherine McNicol Stock, a historian who focuses on the American West. She points to a cultural rift between coastal states and the Mountain West and South. She says the Firearms Freedom Act is a way of staking claim to a particular vision of America — one in which the federal government is kept at arm's length.

"The future of the United States, as they've come to know and love it, is at risk," she says.

Guns: A Means To An End

The Firearms Freedom Act can be traced back to one man — Gary Marbut. He heads the Montana Shooting Sports Association, and he wrote the original act in 2004. Like the Spungins in Wyoming, Marbut takes comfort in the idea that an armed public can resist its government.

"People have asked me," he says, " 'What do you think you can do with your deer rifle against the U.S. Army?' "

Marbut says he didn't expect the Firearms Freedom Act to take off the way it has. He didn't expect the dozens of e-mails and phone calls that he gets each day. He says his aim was simple: to strengthen states' rights. He says guns are only the vehicle.

He says people ask him why he has advocated for this bill. "And my answer is, 'Hey, we're gun folks — we do gun bills.' "

Legal experts don't give the Firearms Freedom Act much chance in the courts. But Marbut and a coalition of gun-rights groups are pushing ahead. They filed a suit against the U.S. attorney general last fall. It's a test case to see whether the Montana Firearms Freedom Act stands up to federal law. Marbut says he hopes he's headed to the Supreme Court. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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