The Real State Takeover

By Yeoman, Barry | The Nation, February 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Real State Takeover


Yeoman, Barry, The Nation


When officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were planning the 1996 State Fair, they decided to play it safe and ban concealed weapons. With more than I million people drinking beer and getting rowdy over eleven days and nights, they reasoned, allowing guns into the fairgrounds could prove a lethal mistake. "We have fistfights out there sometimes," warned county commissioner and former police chief Bob Dick. "Would someone reach for a gun if they had one? I don't have a crystal ball, but my homicide experience shows me people will grab a gun at times in those emotionally charged situations."

Thanks to the Oklahoma legislature, Tulsa couldn't follow through. Last spring, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, state lawmakers passed a bill preventing local governments from banning hidden weapons at fairgrounds. "By prohibiting [the] lawful carrying of concealed firearms," the N.R.A. warned House members, only the law-abiding permit holder will be left without their firearm for self-defense purposes in areas where they need it the most. Fairgrounds have been the site of serious crimes against individuals, including kidnapping."

The fair, luckily, went on without incident. But the predicament Tulsa officials faced has significance well beyond the prospect of fairgoers caught in the crossfire of a midway shootout. The Oklahoma gun law represents one of the most dangerous and hidden trends in U.S. statehouses. With the backing of big business and other conservative groups, state lawmakers are passing bills curtailing any regulatory impulse a city or county government might have. The strategy is called "pre-emption," meaning that the state governments are pre-empting, or nullifying, local control. And its sweeping the country.

Since their 1994 landslide, Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants have claimed to be decentralizing political power in this country. The G.O.P. revolution, says Ohio Representative John Kasich, "is about shifting money and power and influence and control out of the central government." In 1995 Gingrich told the National Association of Towns and Townships, "We're going to get a lot of power out of Washington, but an awful lot of it is going to go to the state level. The truth is, a lot of you want us to figure out a way to skip the state and go right to you."

The real truth is, Gingrich and his allies understand that too much decentralization is not good for the moneyed interests they represent. That's because many local governments are more responsive to ordinary citizens than are state legislatures. City Council members listen more closely to their neighbors than to out-of-town lobbyists. As a result, they're more apt to regulate guns, ban indoor smoking, control rents, outlaw billboards, regulate hog farming and implement strict zoning rules. That upsets corporate interests, who often find themselves on the losing end of local battles. So those interests are going to state legislators, with whom they have more pull, and asking them to preempt local ordinances. And the legislators are listening:

[sections] This past December, New York Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno announced a plan to wipe out New York City's rent regulations by 1999. "We are going to liberate the city," the upstate legislator told a group of landlords at a Manhattan meeting. Landlords donated more than $700,000 to Bruno and his Republican allies in 1996, including $174,000 to a committee controlled directly by the majority leader.

[sections] The Missouri legislature, under pressure from the convenience-store industry, stripped away the rights of cities and counties to regulate overnight store security in 1995. One year earlier, a robber had bludgeoned three store clerks to death in Columbia, prompting that city's council members to adopt strict safety regulations. The new law nullified those rules.

[sections] Colorado state lawmakers tried last spring to prevent Denver from setting its own minimum wage. …

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