This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
Sheriff Mike Lewis considers himself the last man standing for the people of Wicomico County.
“State police and highway patrol get their orders from the governor,” the Maryland sheriff said. “I get my orders from the citizens in this county.”
With more states passing stronger gun control laws, rural sheriffs across the country are taking the meaning of their age-old role as defenders of the Constitution to a new level by protesting such restrictions, News21 found.
Some are refusing to enforce the laws altogether.
Sheriffs in states like New York, Colorado and Maryland argue that some gun control laws defy the Second Amendment and threaten rural culture, for which gun ownership is often an integral component.
They’re joined by groups like Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, both of which encourage law enforcement officers to take a stand against gun control laws.
The Role of a Sheriff
Lewis and some other sheriffs across the nation, most of them elected by residents of their counties, say their role puts them in the foremost position to stand up to gun laws they consider unconstitutional.
“The role of a sheriff is to be the interposer between the law and the citizen,” said Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “He should stand between the government and citizen in every issue pertaining to the law.”
While the position of sheriff is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it is listed in state constitutions: Article XIV of Colorado’s, Article XV of Delaware’s, Part VII of Maryland’s and ARTICLE XIII of New York’s. Nearly all of America’s 3,080 sheriffs are elected to their positions, whereas state and city police are appointed.
When Lewis was president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, he testified with other sheriffs against the state’s Firearms Safety Act (FSA) before it was enacted in 2013. One of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the act requires gun applicants to supply fingerprints and complete training to obtain a handgun license online. It bans 45 types of firearms, limits magazines to 10 rounds and outlaws gun ownership for people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.
After Lewis opposed the FSA, he said he was inundated with emails, handwritten letters, phone calls and visits from people thanking him for standing up for gun rights. He keeps a stuffed binder in his office with the laminated notes.
“I knew this was a local issue, but I also knew it had serious ramifications on the U.S. Constitution, specifically for our Second Amendment right,” said Lewis, one of 24 sheriffs in the state. “It ignited fire among sheriffs throughout the state. Those in the rural areas all felt the way I did.”
In New York, the state sheriff’s association has publicly decried portions of the SAFE Act, legislation that broadened the definition of a banned assault weapon, outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds and created harsher punishments for anyone who kills a first-responder in the line of duty. The act was intended to establish background checks for ammunition sales, although that provision hasn’t taken effect.
A handful of the state’s 62 sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans. One of the most vocal is Sheriff Tony Desmond of Schoharie County, population 32,000. He believes his refusal to enforce the SAFE Act won him re-election in 2013.
“If you have an (assault) weapon, which under the SAFE Act is considered illegal, I don’t look at it as being illegal just because someone said it was,” he said.
Desmond’s deputies haven’t made a single arrest related to the SAFE Act. Neither has the office of Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum of Ulster County. Van Blarcum said it’s not his job to interpret the Constitution, so he’ll enforce the law. But he said police should use discretion when enforcing the SAFE Act and determining whether to make arrests, as they do when administering tickets.
In Otsego County, New York, population 62,000, Sheriff Richard Devlin takes a similar approach. He enforces the SAFE Act but doesn’t make it a priority.
“I feel as an elected official and a chief law enforcement officer of the county it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘I’m not going to enforce a law I personally disagree with,’” he said. “If someone uses a firearm in commission of a crime, I’m going to charge you with everything I have, including the SAFE Act. I won’t do anything as far as confiscating weapons. We’re not checking out registrations. People that are lawfully using a firearm for target shooting, we’re not bothering those people.”
Colorado made national headlines when 55 of the state’s 62 sheriffs attempted to sign on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several 2013 gun control bills in the state. The most-controversial measures banned magazines of more than 15 rounds and established background checks for private gun sales.
A federal judge said the sheriffs couldn't sue as elected officials, so Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and eight other sheriffs sued as private citizens. Cooke was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which a federal district judge threw out in June. He and the other plaintiffs are preparing an appeal.
“It’s not (the judge’s) job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said. “I’m still the one that has to say where do I put my priorities and resources? And it’s not going to be there.”
Cooke has won fans with his opposition. He, like Maryland's Sheriff Lewis, keeps a novel-thick stack of praise and thank-you notes in his office. He’ll run for a Colorado Senate seat in November and is endorsed by the state’s major gun lobby, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
Lewis, who is running for re-election this year, said sheriffs have a responsibility to push against what he sees as the federal government’s continual encroachment on citizens’ lives and rights.
“Where do we draw a line?” he asked. “I made a vow and a commitment that as long as I’m the sheriff of this county I will not allow the federal government to come in here and strip my law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms. If they attempt to do that it will be an all-out civil war. Because I will stand toe-to-toe with my people.”
But Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh, an FSA sponsor and gun-control advocate of Montgomery County, said Lewis’ understanding of a sheriff’s role is flawed is flawed.
“If you are a sheriff in Maryland you must take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution,” said Frosh, now the Democratic nominee for Maryland attorney general. “You can’t be selective. It’s not up to a sheriff to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. That’s what our courts are for.”
Bronx County, New York, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who co-sponsored the SAFE Act, agreed that sheriffs who refuse to enforce laws they disagree with are acting out of turn. Constitutional sheriffs are not lawyers or judges, Frosh said, which means they are following their convictions instead of the Constitution.
“We had lots of people come in (to testify against the bill) and without any basis say, ‘This violates the Second Amendment,’” Frosh said. “They can cite the Second Amendment, but they couldn’t explain why this violates it. And the simple fact is it does not. There is a provision of our Constitution that gives people rights with respect to firearms, but it’s not as expansive as many of these people think.”
But sheriffs have the power to nullify, or ignore, a law if it is unconstitutional, Maryland Delegate Dwyer said. He said James Madison referred to nullification as the rightful remedy for the Constitution.
“The sheriffs coming to testify on the bill understood the issue enough and were brave enough to come to Annapolis and make the bold stand that on their watch, in their county, they would not enforce these laws even if they passed,” said Dwyer, who has recognized the sheriffs for their courage. “That is the true role and responsibility of what the sheriff is.”