Know Your Rights: Guns in Alaska

Published: Dec. 13, 2018 at 2:21 PM AKST
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Alaskans may be better versed on the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment supporting gun rights than they are on other amendments in the Bill of Rights.

Alaskans, it seems, have an outsized fondness for firearms.

This is the original text of the Second Amendment: “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.”

For decades, advocates and opponents of wholesale gun rights have debated whether the amendment only applies to a “well-regulated militia” like the National Guard, or is a personal right that every person has.

“I think people need to understand how that sentence is constructed,“ says Eddie Grasser, one of Alaska's foremost gun-rights advocates. He says the sentence implies that Second Amendment rights belong to the individual.

As it turned out, the U.S. Supreme Court said the same thing about a decade ago in a firearms case from Washington, D.C. — the “Heller” case. Washington, like other East Coast cities, had strong restrictions on guns, and the justices decided 5-4 that some of those restrictions, like a virtual ban on handguns, meant that “Heller” — Dick Heller — couldn’t defend his home.

But the Supreme Court also said that states and the federal government can impose restrictions on firearms. That’s why auto-fire machine guns, for instance, are illegal.

Since the 1990s, Alaska’s state constitution has said gun rights can be exercised by individuals. The Legislature has expanded gun rights over the years.

First, there was the “Castle Doctrine,” which allowed people to use deadly force to protect their homes. Then, a few years ago, the Legislature expanded that doctrine with a “Stand Your Ground” law, removing the requirement that an Alaskan had to retreat from a confrontation — if possible. Now an Alaskan can use deadly force for protection on the sidewalk or any place the person has a legal right to be.

But there’s also been a move in the Legislature to restrict gun rights for people undergoing temporary mental problems. That bill was sponsored by Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat.

“I haven’t been called a Communist, but people certainly get pretty passionate about the Second Amendment,” Tarr said in a recent interview.

Tarr authored a bill on something called “gun protective orders.” Her idea: Someone having a temporary mental health crisis could have their guns taken away. The bill had several versions in this year’s Legislature, including one that allowed a family member to go to court for an order, much like a domestic violence order.

At first, the NRA didn’t oppose the bill. But then its lobbyist in Juneau, Brian Judy, said a new version didn’t offer enough protection to a gun owner. The bill stalled. Tarr says she’ll reintroduce it in 2019.

“We can still love our guns,” Tarr said. “What we can do is try to prevent innocent people from being killed, or prevent someone in a crisis situation from killing themselves or someone else.”

Just what are Alaska’s gun laws?

You don’t need a permit to carry a concealed pistol in Alaska, but many people get a permit anyway so they can use it in the 38 states that recognize Alaska’s laws — gun laws vary greatly by state.

Alaska doesn’t allow someone to carry a loaded gun in a bar or to carry one into a home where the owner doesn’t want it. Guns are not allowed at domestic violence shelters or courthouses and can’t be possessed by a felon.

People also are required to follow signs that ban weapons, though such a sign in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau is said to have been ignored by some Legislators. One person said a lawmaker who was fond of guns — and is now dead — had hollowed out a book for a pistol.

Grasser, the gun rights advocate — he’s served on the Alaska Outdoors Council and the pro-hunting Safari Club — says U.S. law would appear to support gun rights even if there were no Second Amendment to the Constitution.

“I think America is the greatest country on Earth because of the founding principle, which was found in the Declaration of Independence, called the Doctrine of Inherent Rights,” Grasser said. “Among those rights was the right to life. In my mind, you can’t really have the right to life unless you have a right to defend your life against evil people.”

Alaska’s fierce libertarian streak and its subsistence lifestyle, especially in rural Alaska, probably mean that firearms will hold a major place for Alaskans for decades to come — regardless of what happens elsewhere.