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House gives initial approval to interstate firearms compact

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State lawmakers are moving to deny future legislatures – and even future voters – the power to mandate background checks on the private sale of guns.

The measure pushed by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, would require Arizona to enter into compacts with other states which agree not to enact any law, regulation or policy on the transfer of firearms which is more restrictive than federal law. HB2431, given preliminary House approval Monday, also would prohibit enactment or enforcement of any law, rule or policy that would impose a fee, tax, penalty or regulation on firearm transfer.

But Charles Heller, spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League which crafted the measure, said what’s being targeted are efforts being led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to get states to do what Congress has so far refused: require those who sell weapons to others to first see if they have a criminal record.

What makes the measure significant is that, once any other state signs the compact with Arizona, lawmakers here would be virtually powerless to overrule it.

Instead, lawmakers would be allowed to opt out of the compact only once every five years. Otherwise, it would take the consent of other states.

Potentially more significant, it even would preclude a voter-approved initiative to change the law.

The idea of tying the hands of not just legislators but also voters to enact gun laws at will alarmed Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson.

“It’s a pretty serious thing to take away the power of my constituents and the people of this state (and give them) to the state of Utah or Colorado or to whomever else,” she said. “They may have different ideas.”

But Thorpe defended the legislation, saying it will protect the rights of gun owners against the day when a future Legislature – or voters – might want things like background checks or other limits on what people can do with their weapons.

“We don’t want to see legislation developed in the states that exceeds federal legislation,” he said. Entering into a compact, Thorpe said, would have states united in a commitment against new restrictions.

Heller did not dispute that the measure is worded in a way to tie the hands of lawmakers and voters, and said it was designed to do just that.

“The higher law is protecting the civil right,” he said.

“And you don’t get to vote on my rights,” Heller continued. “Nobody does.”

He said that would be like voting for a measure which denies rights to people based on their race. Heller said those kinds of statutes, known as Jim Crow laws, existed for decades in the South.

“If you liked Jim Crow, you’ll love background checks,” Heller said.

Anyway, he said, it’s a misnomer to say the only thing at issue would be requiring a seller to determine if a buyer is legally eligible to own a firearm.

“A background check is called registration,” he said.

“It registers every transaction and it bans private party sales,” Heller continued. “What you have is an inviolate right to use your own property any way you want as long as you don’t hurt somebody else or damage their property.”

During Monday’s House debate, Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, did not get into the question of whether Arizona should mandate background checks.

His concern was setting up a system that would have Arizona lawmakers and Arizona voters unable to adopt their own laws absent the consent of other states in the compact. And Wheeler pointed out this measure comes as state lawmakers are adopting other laws which proponents say are designed to protect the state’s sovereignty.

“It seems to me, incredulously enough, that Arizona would lose its sovereignty because it would be part of a compact,” Wheeler said.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, agreed.

“I do find that quite ironic that we would be surrendering some of our own supremacy, some of our own ability to decide for ourselves, as a sovereign state, what we think is best for ourselves, and our legislative body deciding what’s best for our state and those we represent,” he said.

Asked about his legislation after Monday’s floor debate, Thorpe said the restrictions on future legislatures and voters may be a bit tougher than he wanted.

Thorpe said, though, he would consider giving Arizona more “wiggle room” when the measure goes to the Senate. But he made no promise to demand changes.

The legislation does leave a key unanswered question.

As approved, HB2431 would make existing federal law the absolute ceiling on state regulation on the transfer of firearms. But Heller could not say what would happen if, after Arizona enters the compact, Congress were to decide they want to regulate the person-to-person sale of weapons.

“That’s a question for a lawyer,” he said.

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