Gun-Rights Counties Vow to Resist New Restrictions

By: - April 2, 2019 12:00 am

Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace rallies protesters last month against gun control legislation outside the New Mexico State Capitol. Mace is one of 29 New Mexico sheriffs who said they won’t enforce new state gun laws. Morgan Lee/The Associated Press

There are “sanctuary cities” that refuse to assist federal immigration enforcement. Now, there are “sanctuary counties” that refuse to enforce new gun control laws.

Rural, conservative communities are pushing back against state legislatures that have been approving new firearm restrictions at a rapid rate since the February 2018 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida. More than 200 counties across nine states have vowed not to enforce new state measures that restrict gun access, and 132 have declared themselves to be Second Amendment “sanctuaries,” borrowing a term at the center of the immigration debate, according to a Stateline analysis.

For gun rights supporters, it’s a defiant rebuff to state leaders they believe are attacking their communities’ gun heritage and way of life. So far, county leaders have not translated their rhetoric into action by, for example, defying a “red-flag” court order to confiscate guns from a person deemed to be dangerous to himself or others.

But there is no doubt the movement is gaining momentum: Except for 52 counties in New York and three in Maryland, which acted in 2013 after their states passed new legislation following the Sandy Hook mass shooting, all of the counties have made their declarations since the Parkland shooting 13 months ago.

In New Mexico, for example, the Democratic-controlled state government enacted a new law in March requiring background checks for firearm purchases. But the month before, as state leaders considered the measure, 29 of 33 county sheriffs signed a letter declaring they would oppose any new state laws that “restrict the rights” of New Mexicans to own firearms.

The chairman of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, a Democrat, told Stateline both the newly enacted background check measure and other proposals being debated in New Mexico are “unenforceable, overreaching, unconstitutional and a gun grab.” Further, he said, they are a waste of taxpayer resources.

“In my community, I have more authority than anybody else,” Mace said. “As a law enforcement officer, I have discretion to use the laws that I want to. That’s my decision. I’m not going to enforce that particular law.”

In a series of tweets in February, Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham mocked and lambasted the sheriffs for their “political posturing and dangerous, cynical pandering.”

“That’s not how laws work, of course,” she tweeted, “and it’s not how oaths of office work either.”

Twenty-five New Mexico boards of county commissioners adopted sanctuary resolutions after their sheriffs took a public stance against the proposed gun control laws.

Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland and the author of five books on gun control, suspects most of this is just “bluster.”

“Because they are elected officials, they respond to electoral pressures,” Spitzer said of the sheriffs and commissioners.

“There is still some space between these braggart statements from some sheriffs and getting to a point where there’s a direct confrontation over their refusal to enforce gun laws.”

Co-opting ‘Sanctuary’

In southern Illinois, Effingham County is known for its colossal, 200-foot metal cross that towers over the intersection of Interstates 57 and 70 — the largest cross in America.

In April 2018, the conservative, rural county of 34,000 residents became known for something else: being the first county to use the “sanctuary” label to signal its determination to resist new state gun laws.

Its Republican county leaders, worried that Democratic lawmakers who control the state’s legislature would pass laws restricting gun access, adopted a resolution that prohibits county employees “from enforcing the unconstitutional actions of the state government.”

Around the same time, Chicago was in a legal battle with the Trump administration over its role as a sanctuary city that had declined to participate in the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

David Campbell, the Republican member of the Effingham County Board who authored the gun-rights resolution, wanted to “spice it up a little bit,” so he applied the “sanctuary” label to his measure too.

“That’s a big buzzword these days,” Campbell said. “We’re flipping the script on Chicago.”

There is a massive political divide between urban and rural areas in Illinois, especially when it comes to guns. Three new state gun measures went into effect at the beginning of this year, including a red-flag law, which rural state lawmakers strongly opposed.

“Illinois is actually two states,” said Richard Pearson, the executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “You have Chicago, and you have Illinois.”

Sixty-two of the state’s 102 counties have followed Effingham County’s lead by declaring themselves to be Second Amendment sanctuaries. Campbell said county leaders from other states, such as Oregon and Pennsylvania, have called him for advice on adopting their own resolutions.

To be sure, these measures are not universally loved in the counties in which they’re enacted. Bruce Malone, a Democratic member of the Madison County Board in Illinois, voted against a successful sanctuary measure last year.

He understands the county is “very pro-gun,” but he said he thinks county officials are not empowered to interpret the constitutionality of state laws.

“That’s what the courts do,” Malone said. “In my mind, what we did here was all about politics. I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away, but why are we superseding the rule of law?”

The power of big-city Democrats, most of whom favor stricter gun control, in state legislatures is fueling similar resolutions around the country.

In Oregon, gun-rights activist Rob Taylor is sick of seeing politicians from the Portland area creating land-use, tax and gun policies in the state legislature that he believes many rural residents oppose.

“You’ve got a major metropolis ruling the rural areas, and you’re starting to see rural areas rebel,” the Coos County resident said. “They don’t have the same problems or logistics that we all have. We’re tired of getting ruled by them.”

Taylor, who founded the Committee to Preserve the Second Amendment, a local political action committee, is working with counties across the state to put “Second Amendment Preservation Ordinances” on election ballots that would direct county officials not to use any resources to enforce federal or state gun laws.

Law Enforcement Discretion

Law enforcement officers have a great deal of discretion in how they do their daily jobs. If a sheriff’s deputy pulls you over for speeding, for example, she can either write you a ticket or let you go with a warning.

Law enforcement officials, busy and with limited resources, can focus their energies on laws that they think are most important, said George Mocsary, a professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Law. Rural officials may not prioritize the enforcement of gun laws they think are more relevant to big cities, he said.

But counties were created by state governments, so they are bound by state laws, SUNY Cortland’s Spitzer said. And as the county’s top law enforcement officer, sheriffs should be enforcing those laws.

State attorneys general have made that clear in recent weeks, threatening sheriffs who have said they would not enforce new state gun laws.

In February, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, wrote an open letter to law enforcement officials who said they would not enforce a new state law approved by voters that implements restrictions on semi-automatic weapons and expands background checks. Ferguson said “they could be held liable” if someone is harmed because of their failure to enforce these regulations.

But holding a sheriff liable is “a fantasy,” said Mocsary, citing two cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials were not liable for harm caused by their failure to enforce a law.

Similarly, counties that reject state laws are following the same precedent of cities that have declared themselves to be sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants — not to mention states that have legalized marijuana in defiance of federal law.

David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said sheriffs can’t pick and choose which laws to enforce. The center is a gun control organization co-founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who survived a 2011 shooting.

During his 25 years as a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Chipman said it was his duty to make arrests based on the law, whether he agreed with it or not.

Despite previous Supreme Court rulings, Chipman said a sheriff in a red-flag state who refused to carry out a court order to seize somebody’s weapons would be in “a tight spot” if anybody got hurt.

“The oath doesn’t make us lose our First Amendment rights to speak against laws we support or don’t,” he said. “But if people don’t serve their independent roles in the judicial system, it can become unjust.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.