SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, didn't mince words Tuesday when defending her proposal to exempt guns manufactured and sold in Utah from federal firearms regulations.
"The aim of this bill is not to eliminate federal controls," Dayton said. "It's just to make them irrelevant."
How relevant those controls are is a matter that soon will go before a federal district court in Montana, which will decide if a law passed there last year — and on which Dayton's bill was fashioned — can hold up under constitutional muster.
A review of Dayton's bill by legislative counsel already has raised a red flag and includes a warning that "this legislation is highly likely to be held unconstitutional under the United States Constitution's Supremacy Clause."
Dayton said her bill is part of a bigger movement under way at the Legislature this session to re-establish states' rights, including posing challenges to that clause.
"The Constitution of the United States provides us more freedom than any people have ever known," Dayton said. "There are … 13 bills that I know of in our Legislature that address our state's sovereign right to make decisions in our own state, … and to say to the federal government, 'What part of shall not infringe do they not understand?' "
While the argument seemed to resonate with the Senate's GOP majority — all but two Republican senators voted to move the bill to a third reading — Democrats united in opposing the measure. Senate Minority Leader Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said it was not the time to put the state at risk of incurring litigation costs.
"I know that this year in particular our budget is so very, very tight, we're looking for every single penny that we can possibly scrape up to pay for people with disabilities, public education and those sorts of critical needs," Jones said. "I'm concerned about the potential cost to our state to defend a bill like this."
Jones cited previous legal issues that razed state coffers, including a 2002 challenge to census counts that ran all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and accrued a price tag of $1.2 million.
Dayton said after Tuesday's Senate floor session that she was not advocating spending taxpayer dollars litigating the bill, but noted a number of private attorneys are offering to defend the cause. Her purpose, Dayton said, "is not to obligate the state."
Dayton said some 28 other states are, or will be, looking at the same issue as part of what she called an "emerging consensus" that federal government has gone too far and is overstepping constitutional boundaries.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche