Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg

This Wednesday, April 10, 2019, file photo, shows the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG – A bill unveiled on Wednesday would effectively make Pennsylvania a Second Amendment sanctuary state by barring state officials from cooperating with any federal effort to curtail gun rights.

Senate Bill 624 was authored by state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, who was among those at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection as Congress was voting to certify the Electoral College vote declaring Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Mastriano said that the legislation was inspired by Biden’s comment last month that “no amendment to the Constitution is absolute,” as well as by efforts by the Biden administration to curtail gun rights.

“For these words to be uttered by the commander-in-chief of the free world is very disconcerting,” Mastriano said, adding: “Dangerous times indeed.”

In his April 8 speech on gun violence, Biden asserted that the country could take steps to change some gun laws without interfering with constitutional rights.

“Nothing I’m about to recommend in any way impinges on the Second Amendment,” Biden said.

Gov. Tom Wolf would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, who said: “The administration does not support this terrible legislation.”

Eleven other states have passed laws declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries – most of them just this year.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed the Second Amendment Preservation and Anti-Federal Commandeering Act on April 27. Arkansas, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma passed similar laws in April, as well. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, signed a proclamation declaring that state a Second Amendment sanctuary.

Prior to Biden’s election, only Alaska, Idaho, Kansas and Wyoming had such a law in place. However, more than a thousand local municipalities and counties across the country have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, according to the Gun Owners of America.

State and local governments have the authority to refuse to enforce federal law – it’s the same principle at play when local governments refuse to help enforce immigration law in the so-called sanctuary cities that inspired the name for the Second Amendment sanctuaries, said Bruce Ledewitz, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law.

“Everyone must obey federal law, but neither municipalities nor states are obligated to enforce federal law,” he said.

The state wouldn’t need to declare the federal law unconstitutional to refuse to enforce it, he said, and any federal legislation that would be unconstitutional would be thrown out by the courts even without the state’s passing Second Amendment sanctuary legislation, he said.

Local governments don’t have the right to refuse to enforce state law.

Ledewitz said that state officials wouldn’t have to argue or prove that a gun law was unconstitutional to refuse to cooperate in enforcing the law.

“It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment,” he said. “Any law that violates the Second Amendment is void. That’s all bull. That’s absurd. If there were a federal law that violated the Second Amendment, the NRA would head to court in a minute and a half and have it declared unconstitutional.

“If there is a policy disagreement among Constitutional regulations of guns, then, the state can say, ‘We don’t agree with federal policy.’ They can do that any time they like. But then the federal government generally docks the money you get, so there’s a dance there.”

Despite Wolf’s veto pen, Mastriano’s legislation is still dangerous, argued Adam Garber, executive director of CeaseFire PA, a statewide gun control lobbying group based in Philadelphia.

“The bill is ridiculous,” he said. “There is this real danger to the public that creating confusion has public health risks. We’ve seen over the last year, over the pandemic, when people and law enforcement are confused about what laws to follow and what’s necessary for public health, that endangers people.”

Biden is calling on Congress to pass tighter gun control laws, including legislation to provide for universal background checks on all firearm purchases.

In the meantime, his administration has begun moving on its own to combat gun violence. Those efforts include moving to restrict the sale of kits that are used to fabricate homemade “ghost guns.” The Justice Department is also moving to create model “red flag” legislation for states to follow in crafting laws to help identify when and how to intervene to remove guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

The Justice Department is also crafting a rule regarding the regulation of stabilizing braces when used with pistols. According to the White House, the gunman in a Colorado grocery store who killed 10 people, including a police officer, on March 22 “appears to have used a pistol with an arm brace,” which makes using the weapon more like firing a rifle than a handgun.

Under SB 624, any state employee would be barred from helping enforce any federal law that restricts gun rights, and local municipalities would be barred from getting state grants if they do so.

“These people need to be held accountable” for trying to limit gun rights, said state Sen. Cris Dush, R-Indiana, who joined Mastriano at a Wednesday press conference on the bill.

The Senate State Government Committee is expected to hold a vote on the legislation, through that meeting has not been scheduled yet, said state Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuykill, the chairman of that committee. Argall said he believes there is enough support for the bill to pass out of committee.

Legislation that is similar but not identical to Mastriano’s bill, has been introduced in the state House, as well, said Val Finnell, state director for the Gun Owners of America.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said Republicans who hold the majority in the state House are “pro-Second Amendment,” but would only say that lawmakers in that chamber would review Mastriano’s legislation if it passes in the state Senate.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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