JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Imagine the scenario: A federal agent attempts to arrest someone for illegally selling a machine gun. Instead, the federal agent is arrested — charged in a state court with the crime of enforcing federal gun laws.
Farfetched? Not as much as you might think.
The scenario would become conceivable if legislation passed by Missouri's Republican-led Legislature is signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
The Missouri legislation is perhaps the most extreme example of a states' rights movement that has been spreading across the nation. States are increasingly adopting laws that purport to nullify federal laws — setting up intentional legal conflicts, directing local police not to enforce federal laws and, in rare cases, even threatening criminal charges for federal agents who dare to do their jobs.
An Associated Press analysis found that about four-fifths of the states now have enacted local laws that directly reject or ignore federal laws on marijuana use, gun control, health insurance requirements and identification standards for driver's licenses. The recent trend began in Democratic leaning California with a 1996 medical marijuana law and has proliferated lately in Republican strongholds like Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback this spring became the first to sign a measure threatening felony charges against federal agents who enforce certain firearms laws in his state.
Some states, such as Montana and Arizona, have said "no" to the feds again and again — passing states' rights measures on all four subjects examined by the AP — despite questions about whether their "no" carries any legal significance.
"It seems that there has been an uptick in nullification efforts from both the left and the right," said Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in constitutional law.
Yet "the law is clear — the supremacy clause (of the U.S. Constitution) says specifically that the federal laws are supreme over contrary state laws, even if the state doesn't like those laws," Winkler added.