Utah joins legal fight against federal gun laws

Published: Thursday, April 8 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is joining the fight against federal gun laws by filing a brief supporting a disputed Montana law that exempts firearms made and sold in the same state from federal regulation.

A law passed by the Utah Legislature this year mirrors the Montana law and asserts the federal government lacks authority to regulate guns that do not cross state lines.

"This is the latest effort by states to challenge what they see as the expansion of the federal government," Shurtleff told the Deseret News.

The bill was modeled after a law adopted in Montana last year, the so-called Firearms Freedom Act, which is currently being litigated in federal district court in Missoula, Mont. The action was brought against the federal government by a group of private plaintiffs assert that current interpretation of constitutional law, as it relates to the Interstate Commerce Clause, is incorrect. The federal government has filed a motion to dismiss the matter, which is awaiting a hearing. Tennessee is the only other state that has adopted a similar law.

So far, Wyoming and South Dakota have joined Utah in signing the brief and Shurtleff said he is hoping more states with similar laws sign on by Friday's deadline.

The states are arguing that as long as a firearm does not cross state lines, it does not fall under the Interstate Commerce Clause.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the law on Feb. 26, saying it would send the message that "we will stand up for a proper balance between the state and federal government."

The Montana law sparked a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms warning that federal law still supersedes the act.

Shurtleff said his office would not be further involved after the brief is filed but said if Montana's law is struck down, Utah would likely have to fight its own legal battle.

Until the current case is resolved, Shurtleff said Utah's law can still go into effect and can be challenged in court. In case of a challenge, however, he said he would request that the case be put on hold until the Montana fight is over.

Critics said the law would simply spark an expensive legal battle that Utah can ill-afford right now, but Shurtleff and Herbert are convinced that by filing the brief the state can avoid costly direct involvement, at least for now.

Shurtleff said while he considers the legal fight "reasonable" and "not frivolous," its outcome is far from certain.

"It's certainly an uphill battle," he said. "Anytime you ask a federal judge to limit federal power it's going to be a challenge."

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com

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