Justices Reject, for Now, Missouri’s Effort to Override Federal Gun Laws

The Supreme Court refused on Friday to reinstate an expansive Missouri law that restricted state and local law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal gun laws and allowed private lawsuits against law enforcement agencies that violated the state’s understanding of the Second Amendment.

The court’s brief order gave no reasons, which is typical when the justices act on emergency applications asking them to intervene in an early stage of litigation. An appeal of a judge’s ruling striking down the law will proceed, and the case could again reach the Supreme Court after that appeal is decided.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, giving no explanation.

The Missouri law, the Second Amendment Preservation Act, was enacted in 2021 and had several unusual provisions. One declared various kinds of federal laws — including ones requiring the registration of weapons and making gun dealers keep records — to be “infringements on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.”

A second provision prohibited the state from hiring former federal employees who had enforced such laws or given “material aid and support” to efforts to enforce them.

A third allowed citizens to sue local police agencies for $50,000 for every incident in which they could prove that their right to bear arms had been violated. That last mechanism seemed to have been inspired by a novel Texas abortion law that provided bounties in lawsuits against abortion providers.

In a brief statement on Friday, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that he agreed with the court’s ruling “under the present circumstances.” But he added that the court was powerless to block aspects of the Missouri law that resembled the one from Texas.

Judge Brian C. Wimes of the Federal District Court in Kansas City ruled in March that the Missouri law was “an impermissible nullification attempt” at odds with the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which generally prohibits states from enacting measures at odds with federal law.

“While purporting to protect citizens,” Judge Wimes wrote, the Missouri law “exposes citizens to greater harm by interfering with the federal government’s ability to enforce lawfully enacted firearms regulations designed by Congress for the purpose of protecting citizens within the limits of the Constitution.”

Judge Wimes, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, expressed concern that some local and state police departments had withdrawn from joint federal task forces in light of the law and had refused to use weapons databases administered by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The judge put his own ruling on hold until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, decided whether to extend it. The appeals court lifted the stay last month, allowing Judge Wimes’s decision to go into effect. State officials then asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

Their emergency application said the legislature was free to adopt its own interpretation of the Second Amendment.

“If the United States may sue any state or state official who expresses a contested view of the Constitution, then law professors, state lawyers and all government officials have cause for serious concern,” the application said. “Every legislator has a duty to comply with the Constitution, which necessarily requires interpreting it.”

Lawyers for the Biden administration responded that the state law was “patently unconstitutional.”

“The Missouri legislature is free to express its opinions about the Second Amendment, and it is also free to prohibit state and local officials from assisting in the enforcement of federal law,” said the solicitor general, Elizabeth B. Prelogar. “But it is not free to purport to nullify federal statutes; to direct state officials and courts to treat those statutes as invalid and to protect against their enforcement; or to regulate and discriminate against federal officials enforcing those statutes.”

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