HELENA – The nation’s most influential gun-rights group is conspicuously absent – and nearly silent – in a growing battle between states and the federal government over gun control.
The National Rifle Association has been taking a low profile when it comes to the firearms freedom acts that have been passed by seven state legislatures and spawned a growing legal fight between those states, some gun advocates and the U.S. Justice Department.
The firearms freedom act was first launched last year in the Montana Legislature, pushed by local gun advocates. The law states that guns made and sold within a state’s borders are exempt from federal gun control under Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce.
A lawsuit filed last year by Montana gun advocates following passage of the law argued the state should decide which rules, if any, would control the sale and purchase of guns and paraphernalia made in Montana. The state would then be exempt from rules on federal gun registration, background checks and dealer-licensing.
Several attorneys general, including Democrat Steve Bullock of Montana, have joined the gun advocates this month in their legal fight. But the NRA is sitting on the sidelines – perhaps because the influential group doesn’t think the states stand much of a chance with their constitutional legal argument.
The NRA’s Chris Cox has previously told gun owners that he thinks the litigation faces many hurdles because the Supreme Court has given Congress “a very long reach.”
The U.S. Department of Justice doesn’t think the lawsuit has merit, either, asking a federal court in Missoula to dismiss the firearms freedom act lawsuit. The Justice Department is arguing states can’t exempt themselves from national gun control laws. The agency says that federal gun control is a “valid exercise of Congress’ commerce power under the Constitution.”
Some supporters have grumbled that the NRA has been working quietly to scuttle the firearms freedom act in some states, while simply ignoring it in others. Backers in Louisiana just this week dropped the legislation, in part blaming the NRA’s refusal to take a position on the issue.
So far it has cleared legislatures in Montana, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arizona and Idaho – and is still pending in others. Alabama, South Carolina, and West Virginia have signed onto the lawsuit even though they have not yet passed firearms freedom act legislation.
Cox, who runs the NRA’s political action arm, did not return phone calls to him and the organization over the course of a week.
Gun enthusiasts who launched the fight said they would like the NRA to be more assertive.
“Historically, the NRA has been very uncomfortable being too close to the edge of the envelope philosophically. They did support the bill in Montana at first, but they did not support it in other states,” said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association that is leading the legal battle with the federal government. “I expect they will eventually warm up to the idea and become supporters.”
Another national gun group, Gun Owners of America, has been enthusiastically backing the measure. Chairman Larry Pratt thinks it’s a winner with their constituents and a growing coalition.
“There is an enthusiasm about this that is very unusual,” he said. “I think we are rapidly approaching the point where the federal government is out of the mainstream.”
But the bandwagon does not include the NRA, which warned members last year in its magazine not to test the firearms freedom act laws on their own. The article stated that “no one who puts himself in that situation should expect support from the NRA.”
David Codrea, an NRA member and active gun rights columnist, said the NRA likely believes the legal fight is a losing one, and understands the high-profile group doesn’t want to give its anti-gun opponents ammunition by taking on a high-profile loss.
“That said, I would like to see stronger statements of support,” Codrea said. “I understand the perceived negatives, but sometimes it is important to fight on principles.”
If the case does get to the Supreme Court like backers hope, the NRA will have to support it and be tied to it anyway, Codrea said.
Marbut and others would still welcome the NRA’s help, noting the group has the most political and economic clout to offer.