JUNEAU, Alaska -- In a chamber dotted with female legislators wearing new camo scarves, the Alaska state House on Monday passed a gun measure that is wildly popular among the GOP-controlled Legislature even though it raises serious constitutional issues.
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 69, which passed 31-5 on Monday after a lengthy and impassioned debate.
It declares that guns and ammunition possessed by Alaskans are exempt from federal gun laws. It also subjects federal agents to felony charges if they try to enforce any future federal ban on semi-automatic weapons or ammunition or enforce any new federal requirement for gun registration.
A legal opinion from a legislative lawyer said the measure likely is unconstitutional. When federal and state laws conflict, the U.S. Constitution declares that federal law is supreme, legislative counsel Kathleen Strasbaugh wrote in a Jan. 30 memorandum.
Republicans said they are willing to let the courts sort out the issues. They said that they must stand up for Second Amendment gun rights and won't bow down to the federal government on this. A number said they heard from constituents who back the bill.
Some Democrats argued that the measure puts Alaskans at risk of criminal prosecution if they ignore federal gun laws. While the bill allows the state to defend Alaskans charged with violating a federal gun law, there's no guarantee of that help or any sign the federal government will back off.
Alaska is joining other states angrily pushing back against proposed new federal gun restrictions in the wake of the December school massacre in Connecticut.
Chenault's bill is similar to one from Wyoming, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said. At least 15 states are looking at laws to resist any new federal gun controls, according to a New York Times story earlier this month.
"I hope to God that the federal government gets the point that states want to have a voice," said Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, who carried the speaker's bill on the floor.
FEDS NOT BACKING OFF
The U.S. Attorney for Alaska, Karen Loeffler, said federal gun laws have been and will continue to be an effective tool for the FBI and other federal agencies, along with state and municipal partners. Federal gun laws were integral in the case against Fairbanks militia commander Schaeffer Cox and his right-wing compatriots in which judges' lives were threatened, she noted. Dozens of federal gun cases are brought a year in Alaska, she estimated.
"We are going to use federal gun laws in the same ways that we always have, to fight violence in the community," Loeffler said in a telephone interview Monday. She had no direct comment on the state legislation, but said federal cases are often made with the help of state troopers who identify dangerous people in rural communities.
Chenault said in an email that his proposal isn't intended to interfere with prosecutions like that of the Fairbanks militia.
"They are completely different issues. House Bill 69 concerns federal over-reach and is a statement of support and state protection of Alaskans' 2nd Amendment right," said Chenault, who celebrated his birthday Monday along with the passage of his bill.
The debate Monday was emotional.
The penalty for violating an earlier, now-lapsed federal ban on semi-automatic assault rifles was up to five years in prison, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, reminded his fellow House members. And interfering with a federal officer performing his or her duties could lead to a year in jail, or even longer.