State firearm preemption laws are a relatively recent phenomenon inconsistent with centuries of American history in which cities and rural areas had different gun laws.
From the earliest days of the republic, communities adopted a wide range of gun laws tailored to local conditions, with generally stronger gun laws in densely populated cities that have greater potential for violent crime, and fewer regulations in less crowded, rural areas.
- Cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had extensive laws on gunpowder and gun use dating to the colonial era, and throughout the 19th century state legislators expressly granted newly incorporated cities the power to enact such laws.
- As the country expanded, “Wild West” cities like Dodge City, Tombstone, and others adopted strong firearm regulations. Many banned firearms altogether within city limits, requiring visitors from frontier areas—where gun possession and use was widespread—to leave their firearms with law enforcement at the city limits.
- Throughout the nation’s history, local communities faced few or no obstacles to enacting locally-tailored gun laws. Indeed, prior to 1980, only a handful of states had any form of firearm preemption laws.
Consistent with the tradition of local gun laws, in 1981, Morton Grove, Illinois adopted an ordinance that prohibited the possession of handguns. This sparked a backlash from the gun lobby, and the NRA launched a concerted effort to persuade state legislators to bar municipalities from enacting gun laws.
- The NRA’s campaign succeeded: Today, 42 states have broad firearm preemption laws. Only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, and New York generally allow local officials to pass firearms-related public safety laws.
The gun lobby’s preemption campaign aims not only to tie the hands of local officials, but to intimidate and punish those who attempt to reduce gun violence through local law.
The most sweeping firearm preemption laws contain onerous, punitive provisions designed to intimidate city officials from even attempting to address gun violence.
- Under Florida’s preemption statute, for example, local officials who adopt any firearm rules or regulations are subject to removal from office and fines up to $5,000; they are also prohibited from using any public funds to defend any local public safety rules.
- Under a Nevada preemption law passed in 2015, a person who succeeds in challenging a local firearm law is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs—and may be eligible to receive a monetary award of up to three times the actual damages proved in court.
- Under a 2014 Pennsylvania law, which was later declared invalid, if a locality was sued over its gun laws, it was required to pay the legal fees and costs of the law’s challenger—even if it repealed the law before the court issued a ruling.
The gun lobby has also conducted a litigation campaign to punish local officials.
- The invalidated 2014 Pennsylvania law expressly gave groups like the NRA the ability to sue localities. The legislation was a direct response to courts that had concluded the NRA did not have legal “standing” to sue cities.
- The gun-lobby group Second Amendment Foundation has initiated litigation campaigns against cities it claims have violated preemption laws—suing or threatening to sue hundreds of cities in states from Maryland and Virginia to Oregon and Washington.
These relatively new preemption laws are associated with increased rates of gun trafficking: states with broad preemption laws export guns used in crime to other states at a rate more than four times greater than states that allow local control.
States that allow local regulation of firearms export crime guns at a rate of 4.4 guns per 100,000 residents. By contrast, the 42 states with broad preemption laws have an export rate of 18.2 crime guns per 100,000 residents.
Preemption laws lead to dangerous and illogical results. For example, some localities can prohibit knives from their buildings, but not guns. And some states can and do prohibit guns from state government buildings, but cities are powerless to do so on their property.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the state legislature has prohibited guns in the state capitoland on state agency property, but it has preempted local governments from regulating firearms—so guns cannot be restricted in municipal buildings, or in any city or town hall.
- On August 5, 2013, an armed man entered the municipal building in Ross Township and shot and killed three people and injured at least two others. Because of the state preemption law, Ross Township officials are forced to allow people to bring guns into the building.
Florida’s very broad firearms preemption law has also led to dangerous and absurd results.
- Similar to Pennsylvania, guns are not allowed at Florida state legislative meetings, but Florida law prohibits cities, towns, and counties from passing locals laws—forcing localities allow guns in their municipal buildings and city halls.
- Palm Beach County had to rescind ordinances that kept guns out of government buildings and parks—and a law that prohibited firing guns in densely populated areas.
- And in Fort Lauderdale, it is illegal to bring a knife to a parade—but guns are allowed.
Some states also prohibit public universities from setting campus firearm policy—despite the dangers of guns where young people and alcohol frequently mix.
In Colorado, Utah, and Oregon, the state supreme courts found that state law preempts colleges from setting their own gun policy and forces them to allow guns on campus.
Meanwhile, Utah, and Idaho state laws expressly prohibit colleges from adopting policies that bar guns on campus.
In Florida, voters recognized that local gun laws should reflect local conditions—even if the state legislature does not.
In 1998, Florida voters amended the state constitution to create an exception to the legislature’s broad firearm preemption law. The amendment expressly allows counties to require background checks for gun sales that occur on property with a public right of access.
- The anti-preemption amendment passed with 72% of the vote.
By preventing cities from tailoring gun laws to local conditions, preemption laws threaten public safety, and defy centuries of tradition in which cities adopted stronger gun laws than rural areas.
Local law enforcement and government officials know best how to keep their communities safe. They should be able to determine local public safety policies, not state legislators following the lead of the gun lobby.
States should repeal laws that prevent local leaders from passing reasonable gun laws. If states do not repeal their preemption laws entirely, they should adopt reasonable exceptions, such as:
- Allowing local communities to require background checks on gun sales, ban the firing of weapons in densely populated areas, and prohibit guns in government buildings and other sensitive places; and
- Allowing larger cities above a given population to adopt gun laws to protect public safety.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.