Arizona County Again Defies State Protections for Self-Defense Rights

March 22, 2024   |   Tags: , , ,
A pistol tucked into the back waistband of somebody's pants. | Artem Burduk |

In the latest of a series of challenges by Pima County politicians to Arizona's relatively robust protections for self-defense rights, county supervisors earlier this month voted to penalize gun owners who don't quickly report the loss or theft of a firearm to police. Each violation would draw a potential fine of $1,000, seemingly putting the county once again on a collision course with Arizona law, which bars localities from imposing firearms regulations more restrictive than those enacted by the state.

Deadline and Penalties for Victims of Gun Theft

"Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, it is unlawful for any person to fail to report to a local law enforcement agency the knowing loss or theft of a firearm," reads the ordinance proposed by District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott after two pages of throat-clearing justification for the legislation, mostly involving thwarting access to guns by people legally barred from ownership. "The report of a loss or theft of a firearm pursuant to section A must be made in the jurisdiction in which the loss or theft occurred and within forty-eight hours of the time the person knew or reasonably should have known that the firearm had been lost or stolen."

The text originally provided for a fine of "$300.00 for each violation," but that was changed to "up to $1,000 for each violation" on the advice of County Attorney Laura Conover. The revision seems to put the ordinance, which passed by a 4–1 vote, even more at odds with state law than it already was.

"A political subdivision of this state shall not enact any rule or ordinance that relates to firearms and is more prohibitive than or that has a penalty that is greater than any state law penalty," according to statutes. "A political subdivision's rule or ordinance that relates to firearms and that is inconsistent with or more restrictive than state law, whether enacted before or after July 29, 2010, is null and void."

On its face, that clearly preempts Pima County's efforts. But the county, and its seat of Tucson, have a history of authoritarian windmill-tilting attacks on Arizonans' self-defense rights.

Local Gun-Phobes Keep Trying and Losing

"The city of Tucson and the state of Arizona are once again at odds on how to regulate the sale and use of firearms," the Arizona Daily Star's Kathryn Palmer reported in 2021. "The city has long attempted to enforce gun laws stricter than the state's, which have included mandating background checks for guns purchased on city property and destroying seized firearms."

That year's challenge was a symbolic declaration that the city won't abide by the state's status as a Second Amendment sanctuary—a matter to be tested if the federal government tries to impose gun restrictions state officials refuse to enforce. But the issue was more serious in 2017 when the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Tucson couldn't implement an illegal scheme for the destruction of confiscated weapons when state law generally requires their sale. Faced with the loss of tens of millions of dollars in state-shared revenue as a penalty, the city ended its program.

In 2013, two Tucson firearms laws, including one requiring people to report the loss or theft of a gun or suffer penalties, were ruled unenforceable by then-Attorney General Tom Horne (now the Superintendent of Public Instruction).

"Horne said Tucson cannot require people to report the loss or theft of a gun to police because it relates to the possession or transfer of firearms," Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported at the time. "And Horne said the $100 civil penalty for failing to report a missing gun conflicts with another law that bars gun ordinances that have a penalty greater than what exists in state law."

That law so closely resembled the new Pima County ordinance that it would seem destined for the same fate. I reached out to Supervisor Scott for comment as to why he thought his legislation might survive challenge (I also contacted the County Attorney's Office which had not responded as of press time.); Scott's office responded with a copy of the passed law, presumably to let it speak for itself.

Self-Defense Advocates Strike Back

"Supervisor Scott is right, the law does speak for itself," Media Coordinator Charles Heller of the Arizona Citizens Defense League (AzCDL), which advocates for self-defense rights, told me (full disclosure: I'm a member). "It speaks to deprivation of civil rights under color of law."

Heller went on to detail the decades-old history of largely unsuccessful Tucson-based efforts to restrict Arizonans' freedom to own and use firearms, dating long before the examples cited above. He predicted a brief lifespan for the Pima ordinance. Already, people are lining up to make that span as short as possible, as was predicted by District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy, the sole vote against the measure.

The new Pima County firearms "ordinance directly conflicts with at least two provisions of state law," warns a March 18 letter to the Board of Supervisors from the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute, which represents the AzCDL in this matter.

"Indeed, the Arizona Attorney General's Office previously issued an Opinion finding nearly identical provisions of a City of Tucson Ordinance unlawful," the letter continues, with reference to the 2013 opinion by then-Attorney General Horne. "Based on the foregoing, we demand that the Board immediately repeal Ordinance 2024-2, no later than at its April 2, 2024 meeting. If the ordinance is not repealed by that date, we will seek all legal remedies available to our clients."

A Law That Undermines Itself

It's worth noting that it's unclear how Pima County would enforce this ordinance against those who don't report lost and stolen firearms. Arizona doesn't have firearms registration, which is specifically prohibited by state law. That means Pima County is unlikely to be able to link recovered firearms to their source unless owners supply descriptions and serial numbers when reporting them missing. That's required by the ordinance, but it's a step that would likely be taken by any honest owners seeking the return of property—unless, of course, they're worried that gun-phobic authorities might penalize them for not making a report quickly enough under some dishonestly determined 48-hour timeframe.

The ordinance has the very real potential to discourage reporting of missing and stolen guns by owners skeptical of county officials' intentions.

Hopefully, that will remain an unexplored unintended consequence of the law when it meets the same fate as so many of its predecessors that also conflicted with Arizona protections for self-defense rights.

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