Lessons in the Value of Strong State Firearms Preemption Laws

Along with the sweeping success of the Right-to-Carry movement, strong state firearms preemption laws have been among the most important developments over the past half-century in the way average Americans own and use firearms. To open a circa 1970 edition of ATF's State Laws and Published Ordinances is to encounter an incomprehensible patchwork of county and city regulations that made it impossible for otherwise law-abiding gun owners to confidently exercise their right to keep and bear arms.

Understanding how uniform statewide firearms regulation has benefited gun owners, gun control activists are doing their best to undermine existing state firearms preemption laws. Gun control backers and local officials have determined that they are able to pass stringent gun controls in politically homogenous local jurisdictions that cannot be enacted at the more ideologically diverse state level. Moreover, there are local anti-gun officials that seek to exploit gaps in state firearms preemption laws to attack Second Amendment rights.

The most visible attack on state firearms preemption in 2020 has occurred in Virginia. As part of a raft of gun control measures pushed by disgraced Gov. Ralph Northam, the state enacted HB 421. The legislation weakened the state firearms preemption statute and Virginians' right to carry by granting local authorities the power to prohibit "firearms, ammunition, or components or combination thereof" in a host of locations.

Specifically, the locations are:

(i) in any building, or part thereof, owned or used by such locality, or by any authority or local governmental entity created or controlled by the locality, for governmental purposes;

(ii) in any public park owned or operated by the locality, or by any authority or local governmental entity created or controlled by the locality;  

(iii) in any recreation or community center facility operated by the locality, or by any authority or local governmental entity created or controlled by the locality; or 

(iv) in any public street, road, alley, or sidewalk or public right-of-way or any other place of whatever nature that is open to the public and is being used by or is adjacent to a permitted event or an event that would otherwise require a permit.

The locations listed in (i)-(iii) empower localities to create a hodgepodge of local gun-free zones that will encumber law-abiding citizens as they move about the state. However, the implications of location (iv) are even worse. Under that change, localities are empowered to create roving gun-free zones that may change by the day or hour. Such authority has the potential to create an indecipherable mishmash of gun-free zones that would ensnare even the most well-meaning and diligent gun owner.

The change in Virginia’s preemption law goes into effect on July 1, but the fashionable D.C. suburb of Alexandria hasn't waited. In May, the city council drew up legislation to restrict firearms to the full extent allowed under the new legislation. A violation of the city's proposed ordinance would be punishable as a Class 1 Misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

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Knowing the importance of strong state firearms preemption laws to the exercise of Second Amendment rights, gun control advocates and anti-gun politicians are working to erode the hard-fought protections gun owners have achieved over the last several decades. Gun rights supporters must work to equal and better their efforts in order to maintain and strengthen these vital laws.​

© 2020 National Rifle Association of America, Institute for Legislative Action. This may be reproduced. This may not be reproduced for commercial purposes.

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