Gun maker hails Utah's bid against fed regulation
Alex Robinson wants his assault rifles on foreign battlefields and Utah gun racks alike, so a proposed Firearms Freedom Act exempting local-only sales from federal regulation isn't a game changer at his Salt Lake City machine shop.
Then again, Utah is gun country. Armed self-defense true believers see life and death in every constitutional affront. Many applaud a message bill that would preclude federal regulation of any guns made, sold and kept within state lines -- even as they acknowledge that such a law's prospects in federal court are dubious.
"There's absolutely no reason Utahns should be subject to some whimsical federal fancy created by media frenzy," Robinson said, blaming television crime dramas for part of the nation's gun aversion. People are entitled to any gun they want, he said, regardless of political swings.
Utah lawmakers this winter will take up a proposal to enact gun-rights legislation already on the books in Montana that carves out the in-state exemption.
Robinson Armament is one of a handful of Utah-based gun makers -- from a small-label derringer manufacturer to international household name Browning Arms -- potentially affected because they make and sell at least a fraction of their guns within the state. Most sell across state lines, though, making the proposed legislation a matter of principle, not business preservation.
Gun-control advocates question the significance. The national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for instance, suggests there are no onerous federal gun regulations on the books -- unless Utah's freedom fighters oppose background checks.
Robinson, though, enthusiastically hailed Montana's call and Utah's response.
"Most states are able to handle [gun] crimes themselves," he said.
The Firearms Freedom Act is a state-by-state attempt to retake regulatory power. Tennessee already has followed Montana's lead, and Utah lawmakers are planning to join in.
Though small and tucked away in a concrete warehouse, employing 15 people, Robinson Armament is no "mom-and-pop shop." Its XCR Modular Rifle yearly ships thousands worldwide to collectors and cops, and aspires to rival none other than the ubiquitous M16 as a global equalizer.
No matter. Robinson takes the burgeoning "freedom" movement and its local prospects to heart.
"The states have really lost a lot of rights. I'm for anything that gives some of that back." Besides, Robinson said, if federal rules get too burdensome, maybe he'll set up satellite factories and sell locally in any state that bucks Congress.
For instance, a return to the 1994-2004 assault weapons ban would require alterations to the semiautomatic version Robinson sells to civilians. The ban restricted such things as folding stocks and pistol grips -- options that Robinson says make the rifles no more dangerous, and yet more scary to some.
U.S. Supreme Court case law stacks up against states who seek to undo decades of federal control of interstate commerce. The Firearms Freedom Act tries to do so by flexing states' rights under the Constitution's 10th Amendment, which grants states powers not reserved for Congress.
Congress, historically, has leaned on the Constitution's interstate commerce clause to oversee any business with a cross-boundary ripple effect.
It's for that reason that constitutional and gun-rights scholar Eugene Volokh expects Montana's law, already under legal challenge, to falter.
"It seems pretty unlikely that this kind of statute would be ultimately upheld," said Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Supreme Court over the past century has ruled that even grain grown and consumed on a farm affects interstate commerce, because the farm family would otherwise have to buy the grain. In 2005 the court upheld a federal crackdown of state-legal homegrown medical marijuana in California, citing the drug's illicit interstate trafficking.
The court also generally recognizes Congress' right to reasonable firearms restrictions that don't violate constitutional gun rights in an outright ban, Volokh said.
"I take it a big part of the [act's] rationale is a statement," he said, and that's an appropriate legislative goal.
Indeed, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, stressed the need for a national wave of political pressure when she introduced the Utah bill in an interim committee last month. The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee advanced the bill at that time, with Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, saying, "I love to swipe at the federal government on this one."
Dissenters, though, including Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, questioned why Utah would invite its own lawsuit before seeing how Montana's law fares in court.
Gun-rights advocates insist the movement is more than just political posturing. If enough states sign on they can send a meaningful message to the Supreme Court, said Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut, who wrote the Montana law.
"That is something the federal judiciary calls 'emerging consensus,'" he said, "and they do pay attention to it."
Several Montanans wrote to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms seeking permission to make and sell guns without a federal permit under the new state law. The federal agency denied the request, and Marbut's association sued the government in a federal case that's pending in Missoula, Mont.
Popularity won't save the law in court, said Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah board member Steve Gunn. Just like medical marijuana, he said, it will be tough to distinguish guns kept within a state from those on the common market, even though the emerging laws require engraving of the origin state. The Supreme Court has an expansive view of interstate commerce.
"Why would [Utah] want to pick this fight if there's already a case pending?" Gunn asked.
Utah attorney and gun-rights author Mitch Vilos counters that "liberal courts" stretched the commerce clause's intent: to keep states from bogging down trade with tariffs on each others' goods. Eventually, he believes, conservative justices will reverse course.
"If we don't ever speak up, we'll never be heard," he said.
One potential pitfall is that most gun makers -- Robinson included -- import parts to the state. Metal rods reach Salt Lake City already bored and rifled, waiting for final alterations before they're attached to the frame, or receiver, that's machined here. Lawmakers wrote the bill to assert that imported parts are inconsequential, so long as the manufacturer completes most work on the receiver within the state.
Robinson Armament has spent millions developing the rifle and purchasing the robotic milling machines and lathes.
Alex Robinson grew up shooting in the Salt Lake Valley foothills and started tinkering with his military M1 carbine at age 11. Engineers at the 10-year-old company have translated his ideas into what he considers important upgrades over existing military rifles: rapidly interchangeable barrels and calibers, jam-free reloading, handy controls for changing cartridge clips without ever looking up from the sights.
A first, expensive bid at a military contract failed. That's why civilian rights are so important to independent gun makers, Robinson said. Without them and police -- some Salt Lake City officers carry the XCR -- the company couldn't chase military contracts.
"If we didn't have civilians to sell them to," he said, "we couldn't afford to develop these."
Browning Arms, Morgan: International manufacturer invented gas-powered machine gun, other widely used weapons.
Christensen Arms, Fayette: Graphite-barreled rifles.
Cobra Enterprises, Salt Lake City: Derringers and pistols.
L.A.R. Manufacturing, West Jordan: "Grizzly" handguns and "Big Boar" rifles.
North American Arms, Provo: Revolvers.
Robinson Armament, Salt Lake City: Military-style rifles.
Vector Arms: North Salt Lake: Various weapons.
Wheeler-Topping, Sandy: Heavy-caliber revolvers.
Source: Utah Shooting Sports Council