DOJ intervenes in lawsuit against Missouri state law attempting to invalidate federal gun regulations
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DOJ intervenes in lawsuit against Missouri state law attempting to invalidate federal gun regulations

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday filed a 28-page statement of interest in a lawsuit filed by the city of St. Louis challenging a Missouri state law that prohibits enforcement of federal firearms laws and subjects state and local law enforcement officers to civil suits and monetary penalties.

Missouri House Bill No. 85 (“HB85”), also known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act, was signed into law in June by Governor Mike Parsons in an act of defiance against the federal government. HB85 circumvents federal gun regulations, carrying a fine of $50,000 for each police officer that attempts to enforce such rules. The bill’s vague language also indicates that any communications between local law enforcement and federal agents about a weapon could be a fineable offense.

The city and county of St. Louis filed suit in June seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the law and argued that it should be overturned because it violates the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. The DOJ, noting its strong interest in the injunction, filed said statement of interest “to preserve ongoing federal, state, and local law enforcement efforts.”

The DOJ’s statement of interest challenged HB85’s enforcement on two basic grounds. First, the DOJ noted that HB85 undermines law enforcement efforts to promote public safety in Missouri and adversely impacts partnerships that federal agencies have developed with state and local authorities. Toward this end, the DOJ referred to an attached declaration from Frederic D. Winston, Special Agent in Charge of the Kansas City Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which confirmed that HB85 has already disrupted law enforcement activities in the state and that it will continue to do so if it is enforced.

The DOJ highlighted the importance of federal partnerships with state and local law enforcement as crucial in pursuing criminals and stated that HB85 has already resulted in the “withdrawal of nearly a quarter of ATF’s state and local support.” The DOJ added that these disruptions go beyond just task force support. According to the DOJ, HB85 has hindered information sharing and significantly limited federal government access to investigatory support and essential information such as “crime-related data, police reports, investigative records, background information on investigative targets, and even access to physical evidence such as firearms and ammunition used in crimes.”

The DOJ also noted the confusion that HB85 has created regarding the validity of federal firearms laws and enforcement authority among private citizens and federal firearms licensees and said that “HB85’s repudiation of federal authority threatens to provoke erroneous beliefs about—and potentially opposition to—federal agents performing their law enforcement duties…”

In its second major ground of challenge against HB85, the DOJ argued that the law is constitutionally invalid because it is preempted under the Supremacy Clause. The DOJ specifically took aim at § 1.420 of HB85, which lists five categories of federal firearms laws that Missouri declares “shall be considered infringements on the people’s right to keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and Article I § 23 of the Missouri Constitution.

Because the five listed categories are valid federal firearms laws under the Constitution, the DOJ argues that HB85 directly conflicts with a valid federal law and is consequently invalid:

states lack the authority to nullify federal law, which is what Missouri has attempted in § 1.420… Moreover, conflict preemption occurs when a state law “prevent[s] or frustrate[s] the accomplishment of a federal objective,” as well as when it is “impossible for private parties to comply with both state and federal law.” Here, § 1.420 declares certain federal firearm laws to be invalid. Such a declaration directly conflicts with federal law, and could reasonably be expected to create “an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress…” HB85’s directive to federal firearm licensees is that they are prohibited from tracking the ownership of firearms, whereas federal law makes such recordkeeping mandatory—thereby leaving federal firearm licensees in the impossible position of being unable to comply with both state and federal law…

The DOJ also argues that § 1.420 goes too far in that it invalidates “[a]ny act forbidding the possession, ownership, use, or transfer of a firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition by law-abiding citizens” and thereby conflicts with a key element of the [Gun Control Act] providing that only federal firearm licensees be allowed to “engage in the business of . . . dealing in firearms.”

Additionally, § 1.420 would also invalidate several important federal criminal prohibitions for which there is no analogous crime under Missouri state law—e.g. prohibitions on possession of a firearm by a person convicted of domestic-violence, a person subject to a protective court order or a person dishonorably discharged from the military.

Thus, noting that the federal firearms laws in question have consistently withstood Second Amendment Challenges at the Supreme Court and various federal appellate circuits, the DOJ concluded that the federal laws declared invalid by § 1.420 violates the Supremacy Clause. Furthermore, the DOJ also concluded that since § 1.420 is not severable from the rest of HB85, the law is entirely invalid simply on the basis of preemption.

This is not the first time Parsons has interfered with gun laws or the consequences relating to the open brandishing of firearms. Earlier this month, Parsons pardoned a lawyer couple for pointing guns at peaceful protestors marching past their luxury home in St. Louis last year. The couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, were captured on photographs and videos holding an AR-15-style rifle and a semiautomatic pistol. Mark McCloskey has since stated that he would “do it again” if he were involved in a same or similar situation.