This week, Speaker of the Alaska State House of Representative, Mike Chenault, introduced a controversial bill that he called a gun rights bill, which is being covered as a gun bill, but which is unmistakably not a gun bill.
The proposal, if enacted, would nullify federal law and codify, in state law, a state authority to arrest any federal agent attempting to enforce any future measure pertaining to firearms in Alaska.
It is not a gun rights bill. It is a nullification bill. The speaker, through his legislation, purports that the law of the state trumps the law of the states; that Alaska can strike down as invalid a law imposed by the United States of America, of which we are members, not king.
During a Majority Press Availability on Friday, Speaker Chenault faced a round of questions from reporters about the legislation. The following is an exchange between Chenault and Juneau Empire reporter, Mark Miller.
Miller: Mr. Speaker, you mentioned about being concerned about the President’s policies on gun control and his executive orders. Can you talk about which of the executive orders that he signed that you find would be trampling on the rights of gun owners?
Chenault: Well, there, you know, there’s a number of them and I won’t get into them specifically because I don’t have all 23 of them in front of me. Probably, basically all of them.
Miller: Well, I’m just wondering if there was one specific one –
Chenault: Basically all of them because none of them went through the legislative process of the Congress. None of them are passed into laws, they are EO authority, so that causes me concern that we can take at any time and put a law out there, or something that carries the force of the law –
Miller: But the President has the power to issue executive orders, I’m just wondering which of the specific executive orders –
Chenault: I understand that he does, but I also have the ability to not like the EO authorities that he’s passed.
Miller: But you don’t necessarily have the ability to nullify things that the federal government has…
Chenault: And that’s something that the people in my district are looking at, is nullification.
Miller: Seems like that was resolved a long time ago, when Andrew Jackson was president.
Chenault: Well, we can go back if we want to all the way back to George Washington if we want to go far enough back. So, well, and even before Thomas Jefferson so, and how we became a country.
We can go all the way back to “how we became a country” to look at the argument about states’ rights, and a state’s ability to strike down a federal law as invalid. We can look at the powerlessness of the Articles of Confederation – our first founding document as the United States of America – which proved functionally inadequate because of its decentralized nature. That dysfunction was so inhibiting that it demanded the need for a more consolidated government, which is what came out of the Constitution which guides us today.
But every attempt at nullification has ended with the reaffirming precedent that nullification is not constitutional, starting at the close of the 18th century with Jefferson’s call for Virginia to secede over the Adams administration’s Aliens and Sedition Act, through to Arkansas’ and other states’ attempts to prevent desegregation of public schools in the 1950’s. And there’s that whole Civil War thing that happened in between.
Anyone who thinks that attempts at nullification are a good idea either have an alarming lack of appreciation/understanding of history, or a sick blood lust. If Speaker Chenault’s district is “looking at” nullification as a viable option to serve as objection to federal policy, he needs to have a conversation with his district about how this is not a rational prescription, not take up their dangerous and ridiculous charge.
Article 6, Section 2 of the United States Constitution is fairly clear on the supremacy of the federal government:
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
The DVD commentary to the Constitution – the Federalist Papers – explain the necessity of this supremacy. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #33:
“[I]t is said that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land. What inference can be drawn from this, or what would they amount to, if they were not to be supreme? It is evident that they would amount to nothing.”
And James Madison eloquently wrote in his papers that “A plainer contradiction in terms, or a more fatal inlet to anarchy, cannot be imagined.
John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.