Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon vowed Thursday to ignore any proposed gun-control measures he deems unconstitutional, joining a growing chorus of lawmen across the nation opposed to new firearm restrictions.
In his opinion, Cannon said, those demanding harsher gun laws are “taking advantage of broken hearts” to push their agenda and restrict “a vital right” in the wake of the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Cannon blamed misinformation from the media for heightening public fear of guns, and likened calls for harsher gun laws to blaming a fork for obesity.
To hammer home his point, Cannon dumped bullets out of a revolver and said, “The only way I can hurt you with this is if I hit you with it.”
Cannon referenced his military background while saying an officer is obligated to weigh the lawfulness of orders before obeying. Enforcing what he considers to be unconstitutional restrictions would be a violation of the law and the oath he gave while being sworn into office, he said.
“Throughout history, ‘I was just following orders,’ or ‘I was just enforcing the law,’ is not enough to protect you from liability,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s comments came one day after President Barack Obama unveiled the most sweeping proposals for curbing gun violence in two decades. Obama called for universal background checks and bans on military-style guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines, such as the ones used in the Connecticut school shooting.
Obama also used his presidential powers to enact 23 measures that do not require the approval of lawmakers. The president’s executive actions include ordering federal agencies to make more data available for background checks, appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.
Cannon is hardly alone in his disdain for the measures. From Oregon to Mississippi, Obama’s gun proposals struck a nerve among rural lawmen and lawmakers, many of whom vowed to ignore any restrictions.
“A lot of sheriffs are now standing up and saying, ‘Follow the Constitution,’?” said Josephine County (Ore.) Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.
In Minnesota, Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole sent an open letter to residents saying he would refuse to enforce any federal mandate he felt violated constitutional rights.
Not everyone approves of this approach. Some area residents on social media expressed outrage at Cannon’s stance, and one man even started an online petition to push the seven-term sheriff to resign.
Cannon appears to be the first area lawman to take such a stand on gun-control measures. Attempts to reach several other sheriffs and police chiefs in the tri-county area proved unsuccessful.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he would prefer that people wait until Connecticut police finish investigating and evaluating the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting before rushing to judgment on what may or may not be needed to adjust gun laws.
He said the federal measures might not even be within the jurisdiction of local agencies to enforce to begin with.
If Congress does send such measures their way, the actual powers of local lawmen to defy federal law are limited, constitutional law experts say.
“There may be a little narrow area for that, but he has to be careful,” Charleston attorney Armand Derfner said of Cannon’s stance. “He is a law-enforcement officer and his obligation is to follow the law.”
Cannon said neither banning military-style guns nor placing more law-enforcement officers in schools will guarantee the safety of students.
Cannon expressed fears that new laws could lead government to invade homes of law-abiding citizens to seize guns. Such a policy would be ineffective, he said, because the majority of gun violence stems from firearms that were illegally acquired.
“We have more than enough laws right now, in most respects, to accomplish what we need,” he said.
He said he remained wary of an all-powerful government, just as the country’s founding fathers were when the Second Amendment was first drafted.
“I would argue that however sophisticated or enlightened we have become since then, there is nothing that has occurred in the last 250 years to suggest that we need to be any less concerned about that than the founders were back then,” Cannon said.
The “general erosion of morals and ethics” is a contributing factor to rising gun violence, Cannon said, and law enforcement has been charged with handling society’s failures, including the glorification of gangs and violence portrayed in movies and music.
Lilly Collette overheard Cannon’s take on the gun debate while headed to the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday. After Cannon made his concluding statements, she voiced her own thoughts on the issue.
“As a private citizen I have been very devoted to our local firemen and police officers, and as a result I voluntarily gave up all my guns,” Collette told Cannon.
“No rational person needs to have a gun collection like I did,” Collette said. “One is enough, and I realized I had collected six. That’s not responsible gun ownership.”
Dave Munday and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.