Lowcountry sheriffs' stance against gun control stifles debate, critics say
When Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon talks about the right to bear firearms, he doesn't just talk about citizens defending themselves against home invaders, carjackers, robbers and murderers.
On gun control
According to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, 10 of South Carolina's 46 sheriffs and one interim sheriff have professed to uphold the Constitution's Second Amendment instead of any new federal gun control measures enacted in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Though not on that list, Dorchester County's sheriff told The Post and Courier that he subscribes to the same belief.
Nationwide, the total is 474 sheriffs. Also, 18 state sheriffs associations, including South Carolina's, have issued such statements.
Here's a list of the 11 S.C. sheriffs who have spoken out against gun control:
Abbeville, Ronnie Ashley (as interim sheriff)
Berkeley, Wayne DeWitt
Charleston, Al Cannon
Cherokee, Steve Mueller
Dorchester, L.C. Knight
Edgefield, Adell Dobey
Kershaw, Jim Matthews
Lexington, James Metts
Pickens, Rick Clark
Spartanburg, Chuck Wright
York, Bruce Bryant
He talks about the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War. He talks about Americans' need to oppose tyranny and about Nathan Hale, a colonial spy who died for such a cause when British soldiers hanged him in 1776.
To Cannon, the people's power to resist an overbearing government is what the Second Amendment is all about. That's why, he said, he spoke out this year against any new federal gun-control measures that he thinks would suppress that option, and he vowed to take no role in enforcing them.
“Nothing has occurred since (colonial times) that suggests we need to be any less concerned about a central government that's too powerful,” he said. “The Second Amendment is a fail-safe that protects the country from that government.”
He was one of the first South Carolina sheriffs to take such a stance in the wake of the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December. Nearly a dozen sheriffs in the state, including all three in the tri-county area, and more than 470 nationwide have expressed such resistance.
But it's an argument that some gun-control proponents and police officials said stifles debate and helped snuff legislative efforts in Washington. Invoking the Second Amendment without considering any legislation, they said, doesn't help address gun violence. Determining that a new law is unconstitutional is a decision better left to the courts, they said.
Chief Greg Mullen of the Charleston Police Department said that he supports the Second Amendment, but that not every measure would violate it.
“No matter what you propose, there's always one group that thinks it's against the Second Amendment,” Mullen said.
“That prevents us from having a reasonable and intelligent discussion about this.”
'Analyze and disobey'
The movement among sheriffs is thought to have started in Colorado.
'Analyze and disobey'
On the day President Barack Obama announced plans for new gun control after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith vowed on his Facebook page not to enforce unconstitutional laws.
That same week in mid-January, Cannon stood before journalists, tipped live rounds out of a revolver's cylinder and said he would ignore new federal laws that he thinks are unconstitutional.
He caught flack for the display. In an interview weeks later, Cannon said he fielded calls from people who thought he shouldn't so publicly express his personal beliefs, and from others who thought it wasn't his job to deem laws unconstitutional.
An online petition calling for him to resign garnered 599 signatures, short of its goal of 750.
He said he doesn't regret the move. His position as an elected sheriff isn't a “popularity contest,” but a struggle to do what's right, he said.
That he's not alone bolstered his stance, Cannon said.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association assembled a list of 474 sheriffs and 18 sheriffs associations nationwide who took up the cause. Their arguments were similar: Sheriffs swear an oath to defend the state and federal constitutions, and enforcing a law contrary to those documents would break their pledge.
Cannon, who has a law degree, said that his reading of history texts during the past two years has strengthened his position. On his desk he keeps a copy of the Federalist Papers, letters written by forefathers expressing how best to protect rights and liberties.
The sheriff likens his refusal to enforce new gun-control laws to an Army soldier disobeying a commander. He said he would expect the same from one of his own deputies.
“He has an obligation to analyze and disobey an unlawful order,” Cannon said. “Included in my oath is an obligation to uphold the Constitution and, to some extent, evaluate whether laws break it.”
A day after Cannon spoke, Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt issued a statement invoking the wishes of the nation's founders. He left it to lawmakers to draft legislation consistent with the U.S. Constitution. DeWitt declined to further discuss his stance.
Sheriff L.C. Knight in Dorchester County was not on the list published by the national organization, but he said he played a role in drafting a statement by the S.C. Sheriffs' Association. That statement mentioned modern Americans' distrust of government, and that sheriffs don't have the authority to enforce federal laws anyway.
Knight, a board member for the state group, added that efforts should instead focus on boosting penalty enhancements for firearm crimes.
“Taking a gun isn't going to stop violence,” Knight said. “We've got laws against drinking and driving, but they still do it. We've got laws against marijuana, but that doesn't stop people from using.”
Cannon spoke out, he said, partially in response to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a consistent proponent of gun control who later was depicted in an advertisement for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
A police chief working under a politician, the sheriff said, is less likely to speak up against gun control.
Cannon cited research by PoliceOne.com indicating that many of the 15,000 police officers surveyed think new laws would do little to quell violence. Ninety-five percent, for example, thought limiting high-capacity magazines would not affect the crime rate.
Mullen, the Charleston police chief, cited statements from the International Association of Chiefs of Police indicating support for new measures.
He countered viewpoints about sheriffs' hesitancy to help enforce federal laws. Local law officers have a duty to contact federal authorities when they find violations of federal laws, Mullen said. His department, he added, works “hand in hand” with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Police officers may not directly enforce federal laws, Mullen said, but they cannot turn a blind eye because of their personal beliefs.
That practice backfired this spring for one sheriff in Florida.
Liberty County Sheriff Nick Finch ordered the release of a man arrested for carrying a concealed pistol without a license because Finch “believed in Second Amendment rights,” published reports stated.
Last month, Florida's governor suspended the sheriff, who was jailed on a felony charge of official misconduct.
“If any laws are passed, ultimately the Supreme Court will determine whether or not they should be enforced,” Mullen said. “I don't think that's a decision that law enforcement should make.”
The issue of having local law officers do the federal government's work has popped up before.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requiring state law officers to conduct criminal background checks. It violated the Constitution's concept of dual sovereignty, justices said.
Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney who specializes in constitutional law, said sheriffs should recognize federal law as supreme.
“It's possible that a particular law may be held unconstitutional,” Derfner said. “But it's pretty daring that an officer decides on his own that he's going to do that.”
Debra DeShong Reed, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, declined to comment on the issue, but local advocates have been outspoken.
Margaret Kelly of Mount Pleasant, a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said opponents of new gun control tend to “throw the Second Amendment at me” when explaining their position on legislation.
To Kelly, their argument says little: It doesn't explain, for example, why they think people have the right to carry a concealed firearm into a bar.
“There are other people who think the government is going to take their guns and destroy them,” Kelly said. “They need to hide in the hills with all the paranoid people.”
During her organization's recent march on Washington, Kelly said staffers from only one member of South Carolina's congressional delegation agreed to speak with her. The worker for Upstate Republican Jeff Duncan didn't help explain the representative's position on gun control, she said.
“He believes in the Second Amendment,” she said, referring to what was said during the brief meeting. “That's it. That's all I learned.”
CORRECTION: A staff member for Rep. Jeff Duncan spoke with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America member Margaret Kelly in Washington. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.