Traditionally whenever a local gun law has been struck down in court under a state preemption statute, it’s usually the result of a left-leaning locality attempting to pass gun restrictions that the state government would not otherwise be willing to pass. A new ruling out of Oregon this week demonstrates that’s not always the case.
A three-judge panel for the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled against a Columbia County ordinance on Wednesday. The county’s “Second Amendment Sanctuary” ordinance attempted to prevent local enforcement of all state and federal gun laws. The panel ruled it violated Oregon’s firearm preemption statute, which generally prevents localities from enacting their own gun regulations.
“The Ordinance, with limited exception, purports to nullify all firearm regulations enacted by the Legislative Assembly,” Judge Douglas Tookey wrote on behalf of the court. “If allowed to stand, it would, effectively, create a ‘patchwork quilt’ of firearms laws in Oregon, where firearms regulations that applied in some counties would not apply in Columbia County, which is what ORS 166.170 was enacted to avoid.”
The ruling adds a new level of complexity to the ongoing debate over gun regulation and local control. It demonstrates that gun-rights advocates can no longer count on preemption to just be a bulwark against gun-control laws. Sometimes, it can actively cut against their own interests too.
The movement to secure state preemption statutes was a hard-fought win for the gun-rights movement. It was primarily inspired by restrictions, such as total handgun bans, that various municipalities began passing in the late 20th century. As a result, gun-rights groups like the NRA and grassroots activists around the country began pushing for state legislation to bar cities and counties from passing gun laws that were more restrictive than state law. At the apex of the movement, 43 states had passed laws preempting local regulation over most aspects of firearm ownership and use.
On the other hand, the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement is a relatively recent phenomenon, but it has begun to spread like wildfire across much of the country. It has its roots in mid-90s resistance to federal gun control by local sheriffs but truly started in earnest in Illinois in 2018. Since then, an estimated 1,900 counties across the country have become some form of Second Amendment Sanctuary due to a local resolution or state law.
While most ordinances are primarily symbolic and predominately surfaced in response to the impending threat of new gun laws, some, like the one in Columbia County, are far more expansive and actively seek to nullify existing state or federal gun laws. Those resolutions and ordinances could run into trouble if the same legal argument used in Oregon is applied to Second Amendment Sanctuaries in other states with a state preemption law on the books.
But that also creates a problem for the other side of the gun debate. Gun-control advocates have traditionally been steadfastly opposed to state preemption laws. They typically fight to get them repealed where possible and often encourage cities and counties to pass their own regulatory schemes for gun ownership regardless.
“When it comes to gun violence, local laws serve the important purpose of addressing the unique issues and dangers facing each different community,” the website for the gun control group Giffords reads. “When a higher level of government takes regulatory power from a lower level, it can create a dangerous gap between the people passing laws and those living with them every day.”
It also states that the group’s legislative goals surrounding preemption are “to resist the expansion of and repeal preemption laws in states that already have them and resist their enactment in states that do not have them.” Likewise, the group Everytown for Gun Safety says, “Preemption laws lead to dangerous and illogical results.”
Yet those same groups participated in the legal fight against Columbus County, Oregon’s sanctuary ordinance. Everytown Law intervened in the litigation to represent four residents who challenged the regulation, and the Giffords Law Center filed an amicus brief supporting striking it down. In other words, the groups used one policy they oppose to help strike down another policy they oppose.
If it begins to take root elsewhere, the legal argument used to strike down the Oregon ordinance creates a catch-22 for both sides of the gun debate. The concept of state preemption and the idea of local control over firearms regulation, in either direction, exist in natural tension. This will be a development to watch moving forward, as the political fights over preemption and the movement of local resistance to gun control laws aren’t going away anytime soon.
On the preemption front, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh routinely attempt to probe Pennsylvania’s preemption law every couple of years. Now, cities like Columbus and Cincinnati are in legal fights to do the same in Ohio.
Virginia substantially weakened its preemption statute in 2020 by allowing new local restrictions to be placed on where concealed carry permit holders can carry a firearm. In 2021, Colorado became the first state in the country to repeal state preemption, which had been in place since 2003. And this year, lawmakers in Washington and Vermont are considering their own preemption repeal efforts.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of local jurisdictions willing to take a stand against what they see as unconstitutional gun-control laws, as indicated by the mass resistance demonstrated by various counties to the Illinois “assault weapon” ban.
Hashing out the new equilibrium between state regulation and local autonomy over gun rights will likely take many more lawsuits.