Nullification and Gun Control

27 Feb

Cover page of Tom Wood's book on Nullification

Cover page of Tom Wood’s book on Nullification

Sheriffs in the Utah state of the United States have refused to implement any federal policy restricting gun ownership. In a letter to Barrack Obama, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, consisting of 28 out of 29 Utah sheriffs, have declared that,

We respect the Office of the President of the United States of America. But, make no mistake, as the duly-elected sheriffs of our respective counties, we will enforce the rights guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution. No federal official will be permitted to descend upon our constituents and take from them what the Bill of Rights—in particular Amendment II—has given them. (emphasis mine)

A similar situation in India might look like an association of Police officers refusing to implement a Government directive (either state or central) because they think it is against the spirit of the Indian constitution. To take a specific example, maybe the Police officers in Tamil Nadu refusing to enforce the State ban on Vishwaroopam because they believe it violates freedom of speech. I am not an expert on the Indian constitution, but my guess would be that such a move would clearly be unconstitutional. Police officers in India s are law enforcers and cannot choose whether to implement a law passed by the Indian parliament.

In a similar vein, the letter written by the Utah sheriffs may seem completely outrageous. But in the case of the United States, refusal to enforce a federal law may have constitutional backing through the right of nullification. Tom Woods defines nullification as,

 State nullification is the idea that the states can and must refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws.

Woods traces the power of the state governments to nullify unconstitutional federal laws to Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, drafted by James Madison (a key Founding Father of the US, the fourth American President and “Father of Constitution”) and Thomas Jefferson (another key Founding Father and principal author of the American Declaration of Independence) in 1798.

The Utah sheriffs have come together to protect the rights guaranteed to US citizens under the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which says,

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The debate on nullification and the second amendment  in the blogoshpere is ideologically charged. The libertarians invoke the concept of nullification to question Obama’s move to restrict gun ownership in the US, while the liberals question the validity of nullification and resort to the Supremacy Clause, which the federal government has previously used to strike down conflicting state laws.

Any which way, it will be interesting to see how things unfold.


4 Responses to “Nullification and Gun Control”

  1. Somya Sethuraman March 1, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    I have several thoughts on this:
    1. While people can have a difference of opinion on this matter, it is very difficult to predict at the outset the cumulative effect of any particular law.
    2. I might be very happy to procure a gun and keep it with me for my safety, but if I am told that the police has withdrawn its services since every person is well equipped to protect himself now, I might get really anxious. Whether we want to accept it or not, the presence of police in our cities does make a difference.
    3. On second thoughts, I might not even want to procure a gun. But if I am told that my neighbor has a gun and so does everyone else I know, I would be forced to keep one with me for my safety whether I like it or not. Freedom is only a perception. Each action (albeit innocent) of ours restricts the other person’s freedom in some way or the other.

  2. Ravi Saraogi March 25, 2013 at 4:38 am #

    hi somya.. i read a few lines in an article which directly echo your sentiments, particularly when you say “Freedom is only a perception. Each action (albeit innocent) of ours restricts the other person’s freedom in some way or the other”…. quoting from that article (source:,

    ” Frank Knight, of the University of Chicago, provided a classic statement of the justification for regulation in his essay “The Ethics of Competition”: “In a developed social order hardly any ‘free exchange’ between individuals is devoid of either good or bad results for outsiders,” he wrote.”

    still trying to work around the pertinent point you have raised… first step, will read the essay “The Ethics of Competition”… thanks for your always very thoughtful thoughts…


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