PHOENIX — The National Rifle Association is claiming that Tucson’s policy of destroying seized and surrendered firearms is designed to “deliberate suppress” legal gun ownership in Arizona and “will likely lead to an increase in violent crime and harm public safety.”
Attorneys for the group are asking the Arizona Supreme Court to side with Attorney General Mark Brnovich who contends the city policy is a violation of state law. Brnovich wants the justices to order the city to rescind the policy or forfeit more than $115 million a year in state aid.
In adding its weight to the lawsuit, the NRA hopes to convince the high court that the right of the state to declare that operable firearms be sold and not destroyed outweighs any claim by Tucson that its disposition of property is strictly a matter of local concern. And attorney Michael Rusing is using the Second Amendment right to bear arms to make the point.
Tucson has been destroying guns since adopting an ordinance in 2005. It did not stop even after the Legislature voted in 2013 to declare such actions a violation of state law as city attorneys said Tucson’s status as a charter city trumps state law.
What changed the dynamics is a new law that requires the attorney general to investigate any time a lawmaker claims a local government is ignoring state laws. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, made such a complaint earlier this year to Brnovich.
Brnovich concluded the Tucson ordinance likely conflicts with the 2013 law. And now he is obligated by that 2016 law to ask the Supreme Court to affirm that conclusion and, if Tucson does not comply, withhold all of its state aid.
Tucson responded by asking a Pima County Superior Court judge to declare its right to destroy guns a matter of local concern protected by the state constitution. And it wants the 2016 law giving Brnovich the right to try to withhold state aid voided.
In the interim, though, the Supreme Court has to decide whether to allow Brnovich to make his case and, if so, whether the 2013 law overrides a state constitutional provision giving Tucson, as a charter city, the right to enact the gun destruction policy.
That’s the position being taken on Tucson’s behalf by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Attorney Paul Eckstein said courts have ruled charter cities can decide for themselves how to dispose of property without having to get permission of lawmakers.
“In other words, whether the property at issue is real or personal, guns or butter, if it is owned by a charter city, its use or disposition is a matter in which the Legislature is constitutionally proscribed from interfering,” he wrote.
Rusing, in his legal brief siding with Brnovich, has a different take. He told the justices there’s an even greater issue than the rights of charter cities: the right of citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
“Tucson’s ordinance implicates this right because it impedes, at the margin, the law-abiding citizens’ ability to lawfully acquire a firearm,” he wrote.
In essence, Rusing is arguing that allowing Tucson to destroy firearms reduces the supply both in Tucson and around the state. That, in turns, makes them more expensive and difficult to acquire “particularly for lower-income individuals that may already have difficulty affording a reliable firearm.”
“The only purpose of the program can be to keep as many firearms as possible out of private hands or, put differently, to deliberately suppress the number of people keeping and bearing arms within Tucson and throughout the state,” Rusing wrote.
And Rusing claimed “a mountain of empirical evidence supports the Legislature’s judgment that Tucson’s efforts to eliminate as many lawful firearms as possible would ultimately increase the rate of violent crime.”
How much difference the city’s policy has had on gun availability and prices is up for debate: City records show 4,820 guns have been destroyed since the beginning of 2013.
But Rusing said the policy, implicates both federal and state constitutional rights.
“The right to keep and bear arms is meaningless, of course, without the ability to obtain them,” Rusing said.
He is contending that the city ordinance proves a “hostility” by Tucson to those rights.
The way Rusing sees it, if the city did not require guns to be melted down they would be sold to licensed firearms dealers at a profit.
“That money could be used to provide goods and services to the city’s residents or, at the very least, to lessen their tax burden,” he wrote. What that means is the policy not only “the naked suppression of the right to keep and bear arms” but also amounts to Tucson “effectively making its citizens food the bill for the wasteful ideological crusade against the Second Amendment.”
Then there’s the link the NRA claims between more guns and less crime.
Rusing said the number of firearms in private hands grew from about 192 million in 1994 to more than 350 million now.
“Yet the rates of homicide and other violent crimes have steadily declined by over two-thirds during this period, from about 80 violent crimes per each 1,000 residents 12 years or older in 1994 to just over 23 today,” he said. “Even at this most basic level, then, there are strong reasons to doubt Tucson’s simplistic ‘more guns, more crime’ syllogism.”
Rusing conceded there are “some studies” that claim to link high rates of gun ownership with high rates of homicide. But he dismissed them, saying even if there is such an association “no causal link has been demonstrated.”
And he said that fewer — and more expensive — firearms hurts the people who need it most.
“A high-income individual will be able to comfortably purchase a firearm regardless of Tucson’s efforts to artificially restrict the firearm supply,” Rusing said.
“But the price increase indirectly caused by Tucson may effectively prevent those individuals who are financially less fortunate from pursing a safe, reliable firearm for self-defense,” he continued. “And because the crime rates in Tucson are significantly higher in economically disadvantage neighborhoods it is these lower-income individuals who have the greatest need to defend themselves and their families against crime.”