When it comes to expansion of gun rights, Arizona’s legislators are shooting blanks.
A number of gun bills cleared the legislature in the past two years but repeatedly met Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto, leading many at the state capitol, even some conservatives, to believe that the gun lobby has milked Arizona dry.
This year, legislators tried to push guns into college campuses and gut local government authority from regulating the use or restriction of firearms. The measures either died in the legislature or were vetoed.
Some hunting measures passed, such as a bill allowing hunters to use high capacity magazines to kill wildlife. Also, hunters can now bring Uzis on hunting trips, as long as they don’t use them on animals.
But the most wide-reaching (and failed) piece of legislation, H.B. 2729, would have nullified any ordinance from local governments imposing stricter regulations on guns than state law, and prohibit further restrictions unless gun lockers were present at every entrance to a public building.
There were four versions of this bill, three of which failed in the senate, but H.B. 2729 successfully traversed the legislature until its final death on Brewer’s desk.
In her veto letter, Brewer argued that her concerns focused on forcing costly security measures on the local government level while at the same time gutting their authority.
Brewer concluded in her letter that future gun laws will probably use concealed weapons permits or private property rights as a vehicle for getting more guns into the hands of more people in more places.
But the CCW permit is so watered down, it’s essentially meaningless, said Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who claims he helped kill one bill that would have allowed concealed weapons permit holders to carry guns on college campuses.
“If we still had a strong CCW law in place, I might have felt differently,” Yarbrough said.
A self-proclaimed “staunch supporter of the Second Amendment,” Yarbrough said that if legislators wanted to advance guns further in the state, they might want to consider strengthening CCW laws.
Yarbrough said weak advances in Arizona gun laws in the past two years tells him there’s not much left to expand on the gun front.
“There’s probably not an awful lot of room left to do much more. By what we have done, we’ve sucked most of the oxygen out of the room,” Yarbrough said.
That’s a relief for Sen. David Schapira, D-Tempe.
“I mean for the last few years those kinds of bills have been pushed back. I think it’s a case of going too far,” Schapira said.
A couple of vetoes will not discourage Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, when it comes to constitutional rights. It was his guns in public buildings bill that Brewer vetoed, he said.
“I think we’re misconstruing gun bills with our ability to be safe,” Gowan said. “If the government says I can’t defend myself then we’re going to make sure they are protecting us.”
Lobbying groups like the Arizona Citizen’s Defense League, which backed Gowan’s bill, aren’t discouraged by this year’s results. It’s a sign they’re doing a good job, said spokesman Charles Heller.
“This is an affirmation that we're pushing hard enough,” Heller said.
The gun lobby’s greatest victories came in 2010.
Then, Brewer signed into law “constitutional carry” provisions that so watered down the concealed weapons permit eligibility requirements that applicants never even have to shoot a gun—making the state’s gun laws one of the most lenient in the nation.
When issuing permits, the Arizona Department of Public Safety said that the only requirement it can look for to see if an applicant “demonstrated competence with a firearm” is that instructors are certified by either the Department of Public Safety or the National Rifle Association.
But the statute doesn’t require those classes be certified by those agencies. This leaves classes as little as one hour time enough to satisfy a course requirement to carry a concealed in privileged areas like restaurants serving alcohol, near schools—not to mention 36 other states.
Heller asserts that DPS isn’t doing its job since NRA-certified instructors can only teach NRA courses.
But Donna Street, a DPS concealed weapons permit unit administrative supervisor, says a section of the law negates a requirement the course be vetted by any supervising agency—the teacher need only be certified, not the lesson.
But Heller contends that DPS is wrong.
“If DPS claims that a one-hour class should demonstrate competency with a firearm and knowledge of the law they are not telling the truth,” Heller said.
DPS countered saying it’s not their place to decide—it’s the language of the statute they have to follow.
CCW BY THE NUMBERS
164850: Total number of active concealed weapons permits
35463: Number of women with concealed weapons permits
84319: Number of concealed weapons permits issued to Maricopa residents, the highest in the state
209: Number of concealed weapons permits issued to Greenlee residents, the lowest in the state
Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety
Following this expansion of concealed weapons in 2010, not much else has gotten into the books, though emotions have run high during debate.
The bill Brewer vetoed this week — H.B. 2729 — attempted to revive a previously vetoed 2011 gun bill. Both attempted to require gun lockers at many local government buildings, at a projected cost of more than $30 million just for Maricopa County alone.
Gowan argued that restricting “gun-free zones” to ones that provide gun storage and security “mak[e] sure our citizens have their rights guaranteed,” by subjecting everyone to the same screening.
But some members of the committee took the argument further.
Rep. Terri Proud, R-Tucson, argued that prohibiting guns from a place without checking to make sure everyone was unarmed would just allow criminals an open field of defenseless citizens.
“Nothing upsets me more than a place that restricts my right,” Proud said.
To legal scholar Barack Orbach, pro-gun legislation is part of a larger trend by state lawmakers to defy federal law using hot-button issues as their spearheads.
Orbach, a professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, has researched gun legislation in Arizona and across the nation, said such absolutism about the Second Amendment is laughable from a legal standpoint.
“The argument that there should be no restriction on the Second Amendment is so far fetched it is a joke,” Orbach said. “Absolute liberty means freedom to harm. This is why liberty is not absolute.”
Orbach’s research was published in an article in the Arizona Law Review in 2011. The article, titled “Arming States’ Rights: Federalism, Private Lawmakers, and the Battering Ram Strategy,” chronicles the passage of one gun law, which prohibited federal regulation of firearms manufactured in a home state.
That bill, which was passed by Arizona’s lawmakers and signed into law in 2010, included the exact same language as the original draft bill provided by a private gun activist, Gary Marbut from Montana, including all the typographical errors from his original document.
To Orbach, this proves lawmakers don’t spend hours drafting legislation, rather, they use prepackaged legislation to push their agendas.
“In the United States there is a strong sentiment about guns because they are a symbol,” Orbach said. “And there is a growing sentiment against regulation.”
Strong symbols abound, like when legislators argued permit-eligible veterans returning from war shouldn’t be prevented from carrying concealed on a college campus.
But for Orbach, an Israeli who served in the military, this argument is also moot.
“The reason why we are raised in society and why we have a country is because we have the military to protect us,” Orbach said. “I don’t remember in any shooting someone pulling out a gun and killing the shooter. It is far fetched.”
For Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, military veterans aren’t what he’s worried about when legislators try to soften gun laws in the state.
“My concern is not so much those folks that perhaps have prior military service or even a law enforcement background,” said Gallardo during a hearing in January. “It’s those folks who just wander off the street and decide they want a concealed weapons permit, and not truly understand what they have in their hand.”
Ultimately, gun bills won’t go away, legislators agree.
And for hardline gun advocates like Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu, training and requirements don’t even matter when it comes to a Second Amendment right.
“They’re not very hard to use, and I learned how to use one when I was 5,” Gould said. “I think a crippled grandmother with a gun is more apt to be able to protect herself—even if she’s never fired a gun.”
Mejdrich is a senior at the University of Arizona and is the Bolles Fellow this semester covering the Legislature. The fellowship was named to honor former Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles who was assassinated in the line of duty.