Montana's Governor Scores One for Modernity

Big Sky Gov. Bullock says no to bill aimed at non-existent gun laws.

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Gov. Steve Bullock responds to a question, Feb. 26, 2013, in Helena, Mont. Bullock spoke in a wide-ranging interview on how he has adapted to his new role in his first two months in office.

Score one for modernity. Earlier this week, Montana's legislature passed a nullification bill—a piece of legislation which would have forbidden Big Sky law enforcement from enforcing any new assault weapons ban or ban on high capacity magazines. Steve Bullock, the state's Democratic governor, announced today that he was vetoing the bill, in part on the grounds that it is "unnecessary political theater." (That would be because it aimed to nullify laws that don't even exist yet.)

Nullification—the notion that states can negate federal laws they deem to be unconstitutional—is a doctrine dating to the 19th century that has repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of history, the courts, and the Constitution. And yet it continues to retain mystifying currency on the right, especially among state lawmakers.

Just this year, bills have surfaced in state legislatures which would try to nullify federal gun laws (specifically ones that don't even exist yet) or, in West Virginia, negate the federal regulation of coal mining. A joint resolution in the Mississippi legislature calls for the creation of a nullification committee to pare down federal laws.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

But so far as I know Montana is the only state this year to actually send nullification legislation to the governor's desk. Bullock sent it back. In his veto message he wrote that the bill would put "law enforcement in the position of violating laws they have sworn to uphold" and "subject our peace officers to criminal sanctions for upholding the oath we ask that they take." Sure, if you want to be lucid about the matter.

He goes on:

Further, HB 302 is unnecessary. To date, there has been no action in Congress to enact a ban on semiautomatic weapons. Moreover, recent news reports have indicated that a majority of Congress does not support such legislation.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Well yes, there's that too. After reaffirming his unstinting support for the Second Amendment, he adds that "this bill is unnecessary political theater and would not meaningfully protect our Second Amendment rights."

Well sure, if you want to remain grounded in both the 21st century and the Constitution then vetoing such a nutty bill is the only course of action.

What's next? Bullock's veto can be overturned with a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Montana legislature. The bill's backers could come close in the 100-member Montana House, where it garnered as many as 65 votes; it didn't get more than 29 votes in the 50-member Senate, however, so the veto is probably safe. Stay tuned.