Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison has joined a vocal set of lawmen across the nation in declaring that he will not enforce any gun control laws that he deems unconstitutional.
In an open letter, Garrison accused President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and some members of Congress of “attempting to exploit the deaths of innocent victims” to prevent “law-abiding American citizens from possessing certain firearms and ammunition magazines.”
Some 60 sheriffs from across the country have written or signed similar letters that have been gathered on the Website of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a Texas-based group that in 2011 was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-government “Patriot” group.
The lawmen have promised to do whatever is in their power to protect the rights of gun owners in their counties.
In the wake of the Newtown school shooting in which 26 people were killed by a lone gunman carrying an assault weapon, Obama unveiled what many consider to be the most ambitious gun-control agenda in American history. His proposal calls for a ban on military-style assault weapons like the one used in Newtown, a crackdown on gun trafficking, a ban on ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets and universal background checks for all gun buyers, including those who make purchases at gunshows, which had been exempt.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has introduced a bill in the Senate to ban assault weapons.
Republicans quickly called Obama’s proposal an attack on the Second Amendment, though the administration has said that the president isn’t advocating taking guns from people who already own them.
Larry Amerson, president of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said there’s never been a discussion about taking guns, and some people are using that argument to distract from the president’s goals of stemming violence.
“There are some people who are trying to change the focus of this discussion and using this argument of disarming the American public, which that takes the attention away from the problem we are trying to deal with,” he said.
Other Georgia sheriffs included on the CSPOA’s list of sheriffs who have publicly come out against Obama’s proposals include Sheriff Stacy L. Nicholson of Gilmer County and Sheriff Scott Berry of Oconee County.
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America,” Nicholson said. “We would not be a part of going door-to-door and rounding up weapons. I am firmly against it, would not be a part or it, nor would I permit it to be done – if within my power to prevent it.”
Along with others, Garrison, who wouldn’t grant an interview request, argues in his letter that “the President and/or any other federal officials has no authority to order the county sheriff to do anything.”
Robert Schapiro, dean and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at the Emory University School of Law, said technically, Garrison is right. Federal laws are enforced by federal agents, not local law enforcement.
“But they cannot violate federal law,” he said. “They cannot interfere or prevent federal agents from coming in to enforce laws.”
“They seem to be objecting to something that does not seem to be considered,” Schapiro said.
Gerry Weber, a constitutional law expert, agreed the local sheriffs are jumping the gun, since no legislation has been enacted yet.
“We ultimately have to see what the legislation looks like, but this seems very premature on their part,” Weber said. “Ultimately, it would depend on how the law was written. If it was mandatory, they are obligated to do it, because law enforcement officers are charged with following the law.”
Weber said that, while someone could challenge the constitutionality of the law, there are inherent risks involved – most likely, the loss of federal funding for programs.
Richard Mack, the founder of CSPOA, said the sheriffs who are speaking out are just doing their jobs to protect the freedoms, rights and property of citizens.
“I don’t get where the ire comes from,” said Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County in Arizona. “Obama is not the boss of Georgia. He is not the boss of Arizona. If we continue to allow the feds to run every facet of our lives and ignore the freedoms or Founding Fathers died for, what does that make us?”
The National Sheriffs’ Association’s Amerson, who is sheriff of Calhoun County, Ala., said the group does not support taking guns away from rightful owners, but does support Obama’s recommendations.
“Nothing in those 23 executive orders calls for the banning of a magazine or firearm,” Amerson said Tuesday. “They did call for closing loopholes about mentally ill persons legally buying firearms. They called for closing loopholes to keep people for who it would be unlawful to purchase a handgun from doing so, and it called for more law enforcement in protecting our schools. They are all things which are common sense, and we should support.”
Amerson said that, as sheriffs, he and his brothers should continue to enforce laws that are enacted and not pick and choose which ones to enforce or not to enforce.
“It is worrisome to me that law enforcement officers are saying, before anything gets passed, that they would refuse to follow a lawfully enacted law,” Amerson said. “As frustrating as it is for some of us on some of the laws that are out there, they are still the law, and it is our duty to follow the law.”
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who is the president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, said his organization has not taken a formal position on the matter.
“Because candidly, we don’t know what legislation is being proffered here,” said Sills, adding that he personally opposes Feinstein’s bill to ban assault weapons. “Other than her bill, I have no idea what will come.”