Missouri has become the latest state to throw down a broad challenge to the enforcement of federal firearms laws, as Republican-controlled state legislatures intensify their fierce political counterattack against President Biden’s gun control proposals.
A bill signed by Gov. Mike Parson over the weekend — at a gun store called Frontier Justice — threatens a penalty of $50,000 against any local police agency that enforces certain federal gun laws and regulations that constitute “infringements” of Second Amendment gun rights.
At least eight other states — Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — have taken similar action this year, passing laws of varying strength that discourage or prohibit the enforcement of federal gun statutes by state and local agents and officers.
The new law “is about protecting law-abiding Missourians against government overreach and unconstitutional federal mandates,” Mr. Parson and the attorney general, Eric Schmitt, said in a letter defending the law on Thursday to the U.S. Justice Department. They said the state would “reject any attempt by the federal government to circumvent the fundamental right Missourians have to keep and bear arms to protect themselves and their property.”
In interviews, the sponsors of the bill in the Missouri House and Senate acknowledged that the law would most likely have little immediate effect on the current operations of local and state police agencies, since there is presently little difference between state and federal gun laws in Missouri.
There would be no change to the federal requirement for background checks before buying guns from licensed firearms dealers, they said, and local police officers could still aid in federal gun law enforcement operations as long as the person being targeted was also violating a state law.
The Republican lawmakers said their main intent was to guard against the potential of more wide-ranging legislation from Washington, where Democratic lawmakers have proposed a major expansion of federal background checks, an extension of the time period in which federal officials can review purchases and bills to restrict the sale of popular semiautomatic weapons like AR-15s.
“Missouri law almost mirrors federal law currently,” said Representative Jered Taylor, who sponsored the bill in the Missouri House. “So really I think the concern is what’s next — what’s coming down the road from the federal government?”
With Congress in the hands of Democrats, pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association are turning to the states. A growing number of Republican-sponsored gun bills are making their way through state legislatures, all with the purpose of easing restrictions and oversight in anticipation of Mr. Biden’s next moves.
Among the most significant are new laws in Tennessee, Iowa and Texas that now allow most adults to carry firearms without a permit.
Some states are pushing through all-in-one packages. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana, a Republican, signed an extensive relaxation of the state’s gun laws, including a provision that allows guns to be carried onto university campuses and into the State Capitol.
Critics say the concept enshrined in the new Missouri law and others like it — state laws that attempt to undermine federal ones — is a legally shaky but politically potent strategy deployed in the past in the South to resist antislavery and civil rights laws.
“The fire was really lit under my Republican colleagues when Biden was elected — we’re back to the whole they-are-coming-for-your-guns thing we saw under Obama,” said State Representative Tracy McCreery, a Democrat from the St. Louis area who opposed the bill.
There is a widespread view among legal scholars, and even some supporters of the so-called Second Amendment Sanctuary strategy, that any attempt to supersede federal law would violate a clause of the Constitution that says federal law takes precedence over conflicting state laws. In West Virginia, where a law similar to Missouri’s went into effect in May, the state’s Republican attorney general created a legal defense team to coincide with its enactment.
Missouri’s law is not merely symbolic, Ms. McCreery said, and could make local law enforcement officials “think twice” before fully cooperating with federal law enforcement agencies on, for example, a gun trafficking case being investigated under a federal firearms law that was more stringent than Missouri’s laws.
“A fine of $50,000 for a rural sheriff or a police officer is a huge threat,” she said.
On Wednesday, Brian M. Boynton, an assistant attorney general who leads the Justice Department’s civil division, wrote to Missouri officials asking them to clarify several aspects of the law by Friday, including whether it was intended to block the use of the national background check system or to prevent local police officers from asking federal agents to trace a gun.
“The public safety of the people of the United States and citizens of Missouri is paramount,” Mr. Boynton wrote.
In their response, Governor Parson and the attorney general said they were not trying to nullify federal laws but were instead keeping local police officers from being used to enforce those laws. They said they would not allow the federal government to “tell Missourians how to live our lives.”
The bill’s supporters said they were adopting a strategy that has been used frequently for liberal causes, such as “sanctuary city” laws that prohibit local officers from enforcing federal immigration laws. They also compared it to state laws that have legalized the use of marijuana despite a continuing federal ban on the drug.
Missouri Republicans have been trying to pass a version of the new gun bill, called the Second Amendment Preservation Act, since at least 2013, when they were stymied by the Democratic governor at the time, Jay Nixon, who vetoed a more severe iteration of the law.
Mr. Taylor said his colleagues were motivated to pursue the effort again this year in response to the election of Mr. Biden and comments on gun restrictions from other Democrats, including Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic presidential candidate from Texas whose declaration during a 2019 debate — “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” — raised hackles among gun rights supporters across the country.
“We’ve heard this narrative for the last 10 or 15 years that they want to ban assault weapons and ban high-capacity magazines, and that’s really what this is geared toward, is making sure that we’re protecting from those infringements,” Mr. Taylor said.
Both Mr. Taylor and State Senator Eric Burlison said the Justice Department’s concerns were overblown, and that the bill would have little to no effect on local police officers’ participation in federal task forces. And, they emphasized, the bill does nothing to prohibit F.B.I. agents or other federal officers from arresting people in Missouri for breaking federal law.
“They have every right to come into Missouri as they do today,” Mr. Burlison said of federal agents. He added that the law’s focus was on what he called the “absolutely crazy ideas that we hear from people in the swamp in D.C.,” such as proposals to limit the size of magazines.
But the new laws come at a time of extraordinary volatility and partisan rancor. Gun safety groups warn that their message will only stoke dangerous discord.
“They could not come at a worse time,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the group founded and funded by the former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Cities around the country are struggling with gun violence — it’s going to be a very tough summer. At the same time, we are experiencing fundamental threats to democracy, with the attack on the Capitol and the attempt to overturn the election.”
Despite the backlash, Mr. Biden’s main moves on gun control have been relatively modest, with his most sweeping proposals on expanded background checks and banning assault rifles unlikely to pass Congress anytime soon.
In March the administration announced a slate of executive actions, including a ban on homemade firearms, so-called “ghost guns,” restrictions on the use of arm braces that make it easier to use semiautomatic pistols and a model state legislative proposal for the enactment of “red flag” laws to identify people with mental health issues who might be at greater risk of committing gun crimes.
For supporters of Missouri’s law, these moves are not “common-sense” controls as Mr. Biden claims, but a dangerous intrusion that requires an equally powerful response.
“We will fight any attempts from the federal government to encroach on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Schmitt said.