Commentary: When Second Amendment and states' rights clash

The Sacramento BeeOctober 14, 2011 

Rep. Dan Lungren has a decision to make.

Lungren must weigh his background as a former California attorney general and his belief in states' rights against the hard reality that he will anger the National Rifle Association if he votes against the NRA's top priority, a bill that would dramatically weaken California's strict gun laws.

The conflict likely will play out in Washington today when the House Judiciary Committee takes up H.R. 822. The legislation would require all states, California included, to honor concealed weapons permits issued by any other state, no matter how low that other state's standards might be.

Lungren sits on the Judiciary Committee and hasn't said how he will vote. Most other Republicans have no such dilemma.

The bill's lead author is Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican who has enlisted 240 co-sponsors, including 14 Republicans and two Democrats from California.

Rep. Tom McClintock, Lungren's fellow Sacramento-area Republican, is embracing the measure, even though he regularly rails against the federal government's encroachment into state affairs.

While the NRA has made the legislation a top priority, gun control advocates led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, big city mayors and police chiefs place it at the top of their list of bills to block.

"It is absolutely not a Second Amendment issue," said Irvine Police Chief David Maggard Jr., president of the California Police Chiefs Association, which opposes the "dangerous" legislation. "This is a local control issue."

California exerts far tighter control over concealed weapons permits than most states. Here, law enforcement authorities have broad discretion to grant permits or not, and people seeking one must show good cause why they need it.

Then there is Utah. Along with Stearns' home state of Florida, Utah is a go-to state for concealed weapons permits.

You can obtain a Utah concealed carry permit so long as you aren't a felon, can otherwise legally buy and possess a gun, attend a half-day class and pay $65.25 to Utah.

Importantly, you don't have to live in Utah to obtain a Utah permit. As a result, Utah's permits have become an export commodity. People from across the country hold Utah concealed weapons permits. Utah generated a cool $2.5 million last year from the sale of the permits.

California is not one of the 33 states that recognize Utah's permits. But Californians are among Utah's biggest customers. Utah has issued 16,019 permits to people who list California addresses, according to Jason Chapman, of the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification.

Additionally, Utah licenses private instructors in other states, who teach the courses required to obtain the permits. Sacramento bounty hunter Rob Dick is one of more than 100 Californians licensed by Utah to issue permits.

For $150, Dick offers a five-hour class through his company, Bail Education Association, and provides requisite training for Utah and Florida permits. Individuals who hold permits can pack their heaters in 35 states, though the paper is useless in California, Dick said.

"This is geared to people who travel," Dick said, noting that many Utah permit holders are, like him, bounty hunters.

Stearns' bill comes up days after Gov. Jerry Brown signed several significant gun-control bills, including one intended to fund California Department of Justice efforts to seize guns from individuals who are not legally entitled to own them because of criminal convictions, restraining orders or mental illness.

H.R. 822 would eviscerate that law, among others. California cops would have no way of knowing whether someone with a weapons permit issued by, say, Utah or Florida had committed a crime.

"There are no standards in the bill," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, who has carried numerous gun-control bills. "Whatever state that has the least restrictions would be the law of the entire country."

But that lack of standards is the point. As the NRA describes, the "National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011" would enable "millions of permit holders to exercise their right to self-defense while traveling outside their home states."

Back to Lungren, who, like McClintock, didn't return my calls. Unlike McClintock, Lungren has never been especially tight with gunners. When he was California attorney general in the 1990s, Lungren dared to enforce gun laws. He also describes himself as a federalist who believes in states rights.

Of course, many congressional members who will vote for the bill insist the feds should stop meddling in state affairs. But there are certain imperatives, such as currying favor with gun rights advocates. In those instances, states rights can be so inconvenient.

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