In the last few months, a grass-roots, federalist revolt against Washington, D.C. has begun to spread through states that are home to politically active gun owners. Montana and Tennessee have enacted state laws saying that federal rules do not apply to firearms manufactured entirely within the state, and similar bills are pending in Texas, Alaska, Minnesota, and South Carolina.
Yet the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and Explosives now claims that that not only is such a state law invalid, but "because the act conflicts with federal firearms laws and regulations, federal law supersedes the act."
Tennessee's law already has taken effect. The BATF's letter on July 16 to firearms manufacturers and dealers in the state says "federal law requires a license to engage in the business of manufacturing firearms or ammunition, or to deal in firearms, even if the firearms or ammunition remain within the same state."
A similar letter was sent to manufacturers and dealers in Montana, where the made-in-the-state law takes effect on October 1, 2009. Neither law permits certain large caliber weapons or machine guns, and both would bypass federal regulations including background checks for buyers and record-keeping requirements for sellers.
While this federalism-inspired revolt has coalesced around gun rights, the broader goal is to dust off a section of the Bill of Rights that most Americans probably have paid scant attention to: the Tenth Amendment. It says that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Read literally, the Tenth Amendment seems to suggest that the federal government's powers are limited only to what it has been "delegated," and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1918 confirmed that the amendment "carefully reserved" some authority "to the states." That view is echoed by statements made at the time the Constitution was adopted; New Hampshire explicitly said that states kept "all powers not expressly and particularly delegated" to the federal government.
More recently, federal courts have interpreted the Tenth Amendment narrowly, in a way that justifies almost any law on grounds that it intends to regulate interstate commerce. In the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that a person growing marijuana for her own medicinal use could have a "substantial effect on interstate commerce."
(In an impassioned dissent at the time, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote: "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything -- and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.")
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said in an interview with CBSNews.com on Monday that he expects to be facing off against the Obama administration in court soon. "We will find the right test cases to get us in court," he said.
Marbut believes that the letters were't that meaningful because they were addressed to gun manufacturers and dealers who already are licensed by the federal government. "Those people already are under the thumb of the Feds," he said. "We've assumed they wouldn't want to put their circumstances at risk in dabbling in the state-made guns business. The people who the letters are addressed to are pretty irrelevant to the whole discussion."
Translation: If you're a gunsmith talented enough to build a made-in-Montana gun under the state's forthcoming law, give Marbut a ring. Just don't be surprised if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and Explosives is not entirely pleased.