(CNSNews.com) - Federalists who have been fuming over federal gun laws sparred with officials from the Bush administration and the National Rifle Association on Tuesday, accusing the administration and the NRA of reneging on their professed federalist principles.
Federalists speaking at a Cato Institute forum warned that individual liberty will be at risk if an important check on government power-state authority-is trampled by the federal government.
That left the Bush administration and the NRA in the unusual position of arguing that a greater federal presence in state matters is the only practical way to both combat gun violence and prevent gun manufacturers from being sued into oblivion.
At issue is a Bush initiative called Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal/state program that gives federal tax dollars to state and local law enforcers to combat gun violence, and an effort led by congressional Republicans to quash city lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
Cato legal scholar Gene Healy called Project Safe Neighborhoods "insultingly unconstitutional," pointing to the Tenth Amendment delegation of power to the states and the 1995 Supreme Court U.S. v. Lopez ruling that congress overstepped its interstate commerce jurisdiction in designating gun-free school zones.
Another Cato scholar, Bob Levy, tongue-lashed the NRA for supporting a bill to preempt lawsuits against gun manufacturers at the state level. While lawsuits that attempt to pin liability on manufacturers for the crimes of individuals are "no better than extortion," Levy argues that injustice does not grant constitutional authority to the federal government to tell the states how to run tort law.
"Not every national problem is a federal problem," he said. And efforts to take over state law will have "gutted our main defense against a federal government" that has wormed its way into every aspect of our lives, Levy warned.
Department of Justice lawyer Andrew Hruska defended the administration's Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. "We have a substantial gun violence problem in the United States," said Hruska. The FBI's Crime in the United States estimated that 66 percent of the 15,517 murders in 2000 were committed with firearms.
Project Safe Neighborhoods, he argued, is "extremely effective" and "a comprehensive response to this real problem."
"We don't have the luxury of being utopian in this respect," Hruska shot back. What's more, he said, the initiative is a "partnership" that puts more than 80 percent of available funds in the hands of state and local authorities, a fact that should go far in calming federalist concerns.
In any case, trying to roll back federal intrusion into state criminal law is "above our paygrade" at the Department of Justice, said Hruska.
Todd Atkins, representing the NRA, said the pro-Second Amendment group was also forced to choose between federalist principles and the prospect of gun manufacturers going bankrupt from losing just one lawsuit.
"We're faced with a very large problem," said Atkins. Even if 49 out of 50 states were to rule in favor of gun manufacturers, left-leaning trial lawyers and juries in, say, California could shut down the whole industry.
In fact, he argued, it's a violation of the interstate commerce clause to allow one plaintiff or one city to drive an entire industry out of business.
Since 1998, more than 30 cities and counties have filed lawsuits against gun manufacturers and dealers, trying to recover "societal costs" of deaths, injuries, and property damage caused by illegal use of firearms. Trial lawyers say manufacturers knew or should have known that criminals could use firearms for illegal, violent purposes.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, is sponsoring the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (a href="http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bindquery/z?d107:hr2037:"H.R. 2037) that would create and maintain a list of manufacturers and licensed sellers dealing in legal interstate or foreign commerce involving firearms or ammunition. Trade associations would also be on the federal government's list.
See Earlier Stories:
Does Bush's 'Project Safe Neighborhoods' Violate Constitution? (May 31, 2002)
Congress May Protect Gun Industry From 'Political Suits' (April 19, 2002)
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