UPDATE: In March 2020, article author and PRA researcher Cloee Cooper provided key background information for the late-night HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which featured a 16-minute segment on right-wing sheriffs.
Amidst the crisis of mass shootings traumatizing communities across the nation, support for reducing gun violence through stricter gun laws has increased to 71 percent in the United States. Yet constitutional sheriffs, who view the local sheriff as the ultimate defense against a tyrannical government, are mobilizing a significant backlash and consolidating their power within local government in the process. Their latest tactic, declaring counties sanctuaries for guns and the Second Amendment, is gaining substantial momentum across the country. Although their flagship organization, Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), swelled under the Obama administration and dissipated since Trump took office, the widespread appeal of second Amendment sanctuaries indicate that the movement’s ideology continues to have teeth.
Poised to establish a Second Amendment sanctuary in Mojave County, Arizona, the County Board of Supervisors hosted a hearing on November 4, 2019. The chairman, Hildy Anguis, introduced the resolution by lamenting progressive bans on semi-automatic weapons and supposed government tracking via social media data collection of gun use. He welcomed Republican Congressman Paul Gosar (AZ-04) to deliver a polemic against so-called “Red Flag Laws,” legislation meant to temporarily seize guns from people posing immediate threats to themselves or others. “The Second Amendment is there for tyranny against a government that is overbearing,” Gosar exclaimed. County Sheriff Doug Schuster followed at the podium, with the Mayor and a City Councilman from Needles, CA, a rural city bordering Mojave County that declared itself a Second Amendment Sanctuary City in August of 2019, following soon after. NRA Boardmember Robert Mansell, a Mojave County resident, reasserted, “like Congressman Gosar said, it’s not just the second amendment, it’s the first amendment, it’s the fourth amendment, it’s the constitution… to be interpreted as it was written traditionally.”
When the floor opened for public commentary, elected officials, county supervisors, and other community members contributed to an extensive dialogue centered around the idea of a tyrannical government arriving at the doorsteps of everyday citizens, who would have no means of protecting themselves following all-encompassing bans on firearms. County Board of Supervisors, Ron Gould, who falsely claimed earlier this year that gay men have a life expectancy of 42 and that being gay was a sin, had the final word before the vote was taken.
“Let me take a moment and remind you, the purpose of the Second Amendment is to throw off an oppressive government.” He was interrupted by clapping from the room. “The first things that tyrants will do, whether it’s Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mao in China, Stalin in Russia, every tyrant will want to disarm the populous because it makes you easier to be taken captive and to be subjugated. You can never let that happen,” he said. The Second Amendment sanctuary resolution passed unanimously on November 4, 2019.
Mojave County, Arizona and Pittsylvania County, Virginia are some of the latest in a wave of Second Amendment sanctuary or Gun Sanctuary county resolutions (and in some cases ordinances) that have passed in over 100 counties and cities in 12 states since 2018, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Our first record of a “sanctuary” for guns or the Second Amendment was passed in Munroe County, Illinois on May 7, 2018. The resolution opposed proposed legislation or bills in the Illinois State Legislature which would “infringe [on] the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” and stated that “Monroe County shall become a ‘Sanctuary County’ for all firearms unconstitutionally prohibited by the government of the State of Illinois.” The resolutions are partly a response to proposed “red flag” laws, which allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person who presents a danger to others or themselves. But this wave of Second Amendment sanctuaries also reflect a mainstream push to undermine regulatory aspects of the federal government and build alliances across local government, patriot and paleoconservative movements that revere states’ rights, a theocratic and neo-Confederate interpretation of U.S. history, and an exclusionary vision of society.
Adoption of the term “sanctuary” is a new tactic, but the model for this type of advocacy has been long in the making. Erecting local barriers, and using resolutions to solidify local government support against the state or federal government is part of the nullification movement. The tactic of nullification (refusing to enforce state or federal laws) has been used across the political spectrum but has been fueled by the paleoconservative right. So-called Second Amendment protections to nullify federal gun laws were introduced in more than 38 states during President Obama’s two terms in office and opponents of the Affordable Care Act and LGBTQ rights regularly mobilized around nullification during that time. Ron Paul, sometimes deemed a father of the Tea Party, who comes out of the paleoconservative movement, was in favor of nullification as a means of dismantling the federal government. His advocacy of a state’s rights agenda and nullification drew support from theocratic elements of the Christian Right and the secessionist wing of the White nationalist movement. It also caught the attention of key leaders in what became the constitutional sheriffs movement.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association founded in 2011 by Sheriff Richard Mack, was supported by the Tea Party, Gun Owners of America, the Oath Keepers and the John Birch Society (a beacon of the Old Right). The goal of CSPOA was to mobilize sheriffs to protect a narrow interpretation of the constitution and prepare for armed resistance to the federal government in case those values were threatened. In 2012, Sheriff Mack told a room of people at the Tenth Amendment Center conference in Philadelphia, “there’s a lot more than stinking judges you don’t need. You don’t need the EPA coming in and running your land.” He continued, “Even though there might be the destruction of freedom all around us… I still believe we can take America back peacefully, sheriff by sheriff, county by county and state by state.”.
Their primary campaign was to paint the Obama administration as socialist, on the cusp of tyranny, and build a network of sheriffs who vowed to uphold the Second Amendment. In 2013, the CSPOA gathered testimony by over 500 sheriffs across the country, who promised to be a part of the nullification movement by not enforcing any gun control laws in the event that they would be passed at the federal level.
Former Sheriffs Joe Arpaio and David Clarke were celebrated by CSPOA in their symbolic Hall of Honor. And Sheriff Glenn Palmer of Grant County, Oregon was inducted into the CSPOA Hall of Honor, even before showing his support for the patriot movement’s armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.
This wave of Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions and ordinances reflect the contemporary growth of CSPOA’s ideology. In Colorado, for example, sheriffs in all 19 counties that passed Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions in 2019 had gone on the record in 2013 stating they would not enforce any laws which “infringe on the right for people to keep and bear arms.” In Washington state, where more than half of the county sheriffs publicly refused to enforce gun laws restricting the use of assault weapons earlier this year, a substantial number of sheriffs provided testimony gathered by CSPOA in 2014, saying no to Obama gun control.
But CSPOA not only laid the groundwork for sheriffs to be leaders in the nullification movement to protect the Second Amendment, they also normalized the relationship between the patriot movement and local government. Far right and militia groups like Patriot Prayer, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers have provided grassroots support for Second Amendment Sanctuaries in Oregon and Washington. A local member of the Oregon chapter of Three Percenters, the late Tom McKrigan, drafted and publicly rallied in support of the Douglas county Second Amendment ordinance in Oregon, according to OPB. Members of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers militias mobilized in support of Second Amendment Preservation ordinances (the predecessor to the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions), which passed in more than 10 counties in Oregon in 2018. And in Washington State, Patriot Prayer leader, Joey Gibson, held ongoing rallies in support of Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions in response to Initiative 1639, which requires enhanced background checks and provisions on owning semi-automatic assault rifles and went into effect January 2019. According to local activists in Battle Ground, Washington, Gibson attended city council meetings with approximately 15 supporters, each of whom delivered comments in support of a Second Amendment sanctuary ordinance.
Last month county commissioner Warren Hurst of Sevier County Tennessee went on a rant against Queer communities and in defense of White males while overseeing the passage of the county’s Second Amendment sanctuary resolution. His views reinforced the broader vision of the constitutional sheriffs movement: a return to a theocratic and neo-Confederate interpretation of U.S. history.
Marshall Hanig contributed reporting to this article.