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Lawmakers Mull Bills to Keep Federal Gun Laws Out of Texas

A House committee on Wednesday debated several bills that would make it a crime to enforce new federal gun laws in Texas.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, finishes explaining his HB553 a Second Amendment preservation bill on March 13, 2013.

State lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday debated proposals that would make it a crime to enforce federal gun laws in Texas.

The proposals have drawn support from gun rights groups, but some law enforcement officers have expressed concerns that they would have to choose between enforcing federal or state law.

House Bill 553, by state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, would make it a Class B misdemeanor for a law enforcement official to enforce any federal law limiting gun-related behavior, like ownership of high-capacity magazines and certain assault weapons. HB 1076, by state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, would make such enforcement a Class A misdemeanor but says an officer must "knowingly" enforce a federal law. 

In January, in response to the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., President Obama called on Congress to implement background checks for all gun purchases and to ban certain assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

At the House Select Committee on Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility hearing on Wednesday, Otto said his East Texas constituents had urged him to make sure Texas law preempts such federal legislation, like a bill filed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would ban “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition feeding devices."

“I got more emails and phone calls on this one issue [from constituents] in my first month in Austin than all other issues combined,” Otto said at the hearing. “I don’t want to roll over and play dead if something like this happens.”

Aubrey Vaughan, a Baptist pastor from Otto’s district who heads Pastors for the Second Amendment, urged the committee to fight federal gun laws with biblical arguments. “Joshua used the sword to take the Promised Land,” Vaughan told them. “Everyone knows about David slaying Goliath, and the Lord Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go buy a sword.’ The sword is there.”

Vaughan added, “Otto is doing what’s right for the state of Texas, because we believe in guns around here, as everybody knows.”

Several members of the audience loudly proclaimed, “Amen.”

Critics of Otto’s bill and similar measures have suggested that they would violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that federal laws overrule state laws.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, said he supported gun rights but that the state would face an expensive legal process defending such laws in court.  

Washington Moscoso, a member of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said he worried that police officers would be put in the untenable position of having to choose between enforcing federal and state laws. “We don’t want to criminalize police officers for doing their jobs,” he said, referring to the bill’s provision that makes enforcing a federal law a Class B misdemeanor.

In response, Toth discussed HB 1076, which contains language similar to Otto's proposal and makes it a Class A misdemeanor to enforce federal gun restrictions, but added that the officer must "knowingly" enforce the restriction, which he said would protect officers who do not know what to do and make a mistake.

Moscoso said he supported Toth's bill, as did Warren Diepraam, a Montgomery County prosecutor. "I don't believe we're going to see police officers arresting federal agents," Diepraam said, adding that the measure would simply allow local police officers to not enforce federal gun laws with a clear conscience.

Other bills discussed by the committee Wednesday included HB 627, by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, which would exempt guns manufactured and sold exclusively in Texas from being subject to federal regulation of interstate commerce, and HB 928, also by Krause, which would would bar state law enforcement from using state money to enforce federal gun regulations. While Otto's bill would create a criminal penalty for police officers who enforce federal gun laws, Krause's proposal would simply deny them funding for the next year. "Purse strings make wonderful handcuffs," said John Harrington, the owner of gun accessory manufacturer Shield Tactical.

HB 872, by state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, also aims to exempt firearm manufactures in Texas from federal regulation. She said she filed the bill to show that "women are equally, if not more, concerned than men about Second Amendment rights."

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