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Half-Cocked 

Federal laws and constitutional protections regarding firearms supersede any laws the state might pass

Chalk up another one for the National Rifle Association (NRA). After more than an hour of debate on May 2, the state House Criminal Justice Committee voted 9-5 in favor of Senate Bill 303, which enjoys the NRA's wholehearted backing. The measure, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, already sailed through the state Senate and now awaits final consideration by the House. If SB 303 gains the required two-thirds majority in the House — and what Louisiana lawmaker would dare oppose the putative rights of gun owners? — the issue will appear on the November ballot for voter approval.

  The proposed amendment states: "The right of individuals to acquire, keep, possess, transport, carry, transfer, and use arms for defense of life and liberty, and for all other legitimate purposes is fundamental and shall not be denied or infringed, and any restriction on this right must be subjected to strict scrutiny." It sounds simple, but legal observers point out, rightly, that SB 303 is anything but simple.

  "Strict scrutiny" is the highest standard of judicial review. The NRA correctly describes it as "the highest level of legal protection given to other fundamental rights such as life and free speech." The government must prove a "compelling" state interest in order to restrict such a right. Enshrining strict scrutiny into the state constitution to protect gun owners would not bar schools and houses of worship from designating themselves as gun-free. It would, however, open the door to litigating the issue. The Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), a good-government watchdog, has taken the unusual step of joining this discussion, noting, "The threat of protracted litigation involving our university systems is yet another distraction we don't need." We agree.

  State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, the bill's author, admits the NRA advised him on its crafting. Not surprisingly, the measure has won the enthusiastic support of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who never misses a chance to earn more "Bubba" bona fides. In early April, Jindal spoke at the NRA's annual convention in St. Louis. "It's the reason I push as hard as I can every day to protect our Second Amendment rights, not only in Louisiana but across this great country of ours," he told the crowd — with one eye, as usual, cast toward the national stage.

  Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who has seen much more gun violence than has Jindal — and who is hardly soft on crime — opposes the measure. "I can guarantee you [the proposal] does not stop crime in Orleans Parish," he told the House committee. He was joined by fellow district attorneys Charles Ballay of Plaquemines Parish and John

DeRosier of Calcasieu Parish, who echoed his message.

  At the committee hearing, Democratic State Reps. Roy Burrell, Dalton Honore, Barbara Norton, Terry Landry and Helena Moreno repeatedly asked why Louisiana needs to amend its constitution to protect gun ownership. "I'm just trying to figure out how this gun bill is going to make Louisiana better and make citizens safer," said Landry, a former head of the Louisiana State Police. He added that he didn't want to send the state back to "the Wild, Wild West."

  Riser said he introduced the bill to protect Second Amendment rights from future legislative bodies, should they want to introduce additional gun control bills, or "a liberal body in the future that won't let me shoot a pellet gun in my yard." We hope Riser's aim with a pellet gun is better than his grasp of the law. For starters, federal laws and constitutional protections regarding firearms supersede any laws the state might pass. Moreover, any Louisiana lawmaker foolhardy enough to try to restrict gun ownership would find him or herself immediately bounced out of office. (When Riser was asked by Norton to name three places he'd like to carry a firearm that he can't under current law, Riser said he'd like to be able to bring a gun to the state Capitol, to any person's home and across parade grounds — all currently prohibited.)

  SB 303 doesn't roll back any existing gun laws. But it does monkey with the Louisiana Constitution while allowing some lawmakers to posture like tough guys — in defiance of the wisdom of the real tough guys, the DAs and cops who have to deal with the real bad guys who will no doubt take illicit advantage of laws like SB 303.

  We get it: the thought of saying "no" to the NRA puts a yellow stripe down the backs of many Louisiana legislators. Nevertheless, SB 303 is a half-cocked notion. It should be defeated.

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