Thursday, September 24, 2009
ATF tells Tennessee that a federal gun law trumps the state’s
The ATF says the federal laws still apply regardless of the state's move.
The Tennessee legislature considered and approved several bills this year to reduce restrictions on firearms, including one bill that its sponsors labeled the "Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act." It passed overwhelmingly -- 87-1 in the House and 22-7 in the Senate -- despite warnings by some lawmakers that it could subject Tennessee citizens to federal prosecution and imprisonment.
"This bill simply asserts that if a firearms and/or ammunition is made totally within the state of Tennessee, then the federal government has no jurisdiction over that item in any fashion, so long as it remains in the state and outside of interstate commerce," Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, the bill's sponsor, said on the Senate floor when it passed there in June.
The bill was a two-fer for conservatives in the legislature: a gun bill and a state sovereignty bill rolled into one.
"An effort by the federal government to regulate intrastate commerce under the guise of powers implied by the interstate commerce clause could only result in encroachment of the state's power to regulate commerce within its borders," said Beavers.
But ATF Asst. Director Carson W. Carroll, head of the agency's enforcement programs and services, sent an "Open Letter to all Tennessee Firearms Licensees" a month later that explained the agency's position on the law.
"The act purports to exempt personal firearms, firearms accessories and ammunition manufactured in the state and which remain in the state from most federal firearms laws and regulations," Carroll wrote. "However, because the act conflicts with federal firearms laws and regulations, federal law supercedes the act and all provisions of the (federal) Gun Control Act and the National Firearms Act and their corresponding regulations continue to apply."
The letter is posted on the Tennessee Firearms Association's Web site with this unsigned commentary by the association: "The ATF -- as expected -- has issued a letter in which it disregards the 10th Amendment restrictions on federal power (as seems to be the trend since the late 1930s) and has notified Tennessee's federal firearms dealers that the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act is meaningless. ... We expected such from a tyranny that no longer lives within the bounds of its express authority."
But ATF Nashville Special Agent-in-Charge James M. Cavanaugh said several U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld the federal gun laws.
"The Constitution says the Supreme Court interprets the law," he said. "The ATF hasn't ruled this, the Supreme Court has, and we're a law enforcement agency."
Cavanaugh said Tennessee has nearly 2,000 licensed gun dealers and manufacturers and the agency has received no complaints from them about the letter.
"It's analogous to a speed limit. If the speed limit on the interstate is set at 70, a city along the interstate can't come along and say there is no speed limit on the interstate through our city. The highway patrol could still enforce the speed limit," he said.
Although Montana was the first state to pass its version of the Firearms Freedom Act, Tennessee was the first to implement it because the Montana law specifies an effective date of Oct. 1.
Although the bill passed overwhelmingly -- and with no debate in the House -- it had its critics in the Senate who warned of its likely outcome. And Cavanaugh said some legislators inquired about the bill before its passage.
"If one of the citizens of our state reads about the passage of this legislation and uses it and relies upon it and goes out and does something ... couldn't they be convicted under federal law?" asked Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. "I see this as a real danger to our citizens."'