On Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously held that the state was within its authority to prohibit cities and counties from routinely destroying firearms obtained through forfeiture or as unclaimed property. State law holds that political subdivisions must instead (subject to certain exceptions) recirculate the firearms through legitimate channels of commerce, just as they do with other types of valuable property. The case represents the latest battle in an effort dating back nearly two decades to prevent anti-gun localities from undermining the pro-gun policies of the state legislature.
While the case – State v. City of Tucson – rests on complicated issues of Arizona constitutional, statutory, and common law, it illustrates challenges facing gun owners nationwide and the importance of sustained advocacy in ensuring Second Amendment rights. Infringements of the right to keep and bear arms are rarely resolved simply by pointing to the Second Amendment or similar provisions of state constitutions. Rather, it often takes remedial legislation, backed by months or years of painstaking litigation, to vindicate the rights of gun owners.
The case also illustrates how even in the most pro-gun of states, there are always anti-gun enclaves and/or political opportunists who will openly defy clear legal authority for as long as possible to further their oppressive agenda of suppressing our firearms freedom.
The leading opinion of four justices validated the NRA’s argument that protecting the right to keep and bear arms enshrined in the state and federal constitutions is a matter of statewide concern and that the enactments of the legislature on this subject therefore take precedence over the acts of charter cities. As explained in the case’s leading opinion, the Arizona legislature passed a statute in 2000 to assert exclusive authority over the regulation of firearms and ammunition. Nevertheless, the City of Tucson five years later enacted an ordinance calling for the destruction of certain unclaimed or forfeited firearms.
The legislature, in turn, responded by enacting two additional statutes in 2013 that prohibited agencies, political subdivisions, and law enforcement entities from “facilitating the destruction of a firearm” and that instructed them instead to sell the firearms to businesses which lawfully participate in gun sales.
Despite the legislature’s explicit directives, Tucson destroyed nearly 5,000 additional firearms after the enactment of the 2013 laws. The legislature again responded in 2016, this time by establishing a framework by which one or more members of the legislature could seek remedial action through the state attorney general’s office against alleged violations of Arizona’s laws or its constitution by political subdivisions.
Pursuant to that framework, Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem asked the attorney general to review Tucson’s firearm destruction program. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich concluded that Tucson’s ordinance was contrary to state law, but the city rejected the findings and refused to take corrective action. Pursuant to the 2016 law, Attorney General Brnovich then filed a petition with the Arizona Supreme Court to resolve the matter.
Although the justices were divided on their reasoning, all agreed the state legislature had acted within its authority by enacting the statute preventing localities from destroying firearms that were otherwise lawful to sell under state and federal law. The leading opinion of four justices validated the NRA’s argument that protecting the right to keep and bear arms enshrined in the state and federal constitutions is a matter of statewide concern and that the enactments of the legislature on this subject therefore take precedence over the acts of charter cities.
Tucson’s behavior to date leaves little doubt that anti-gun officials will continue looking for ways to undermine the rights of gun owners within the city, notwithstanding the state legislature’s pronouncements. This is unfortunately an all-too-common phenomenon across the country in otherwise pro-gun states. That is exactly why the NRA’s work to vindicate the rights of gun owners never stops, even when it does not grab national headlines.