Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, who was an iconic hero of the 1990s militia movement, is back in the saddle. As head of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, Mack is spreading antigovernment "Patriot" ideology to the Tea Parties, enthusiasts of the Second Amendment and, above all, law enforcement officials.
He’s a graduate of the FBI National Academy who preaches that county sheriffs are the highest legitimate law enforcement officials in the land. He’s a hard-right libertarian who believes the federal government has no authority to require drivers to wear seat belts and who once demanded the government give him back the $4,800 he paid in income taxes. He’s a self-styled “constitutional conservative” with little or no formal legal training who believes that states can ignore federal laws they don’t like, despite clear language in the U.S. Constitution that says otherwise.
Meet Richard Mack — or “Sheriff Mack,” as he is more commonly known.
Mack, 59, is the raven-haired former sheriff of a sparsely populated Arizona county who was catapulted from obscurity to right-wing fame in the mid-1990s when he challenged the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and won a U.S. Supreme Court victory that weakened the gun-control law signed by President Bill Clinton.
An inductee in the National Rifle Association’s Hall of Fame whose stardom dimmed by the turn of the century, Mack is once again riding high in the saddle as a patron saint of the resurgent antigovernment “Patriot” movement and a meticulously coiffed darling of the Tea Party set. For the past two years, the former public relations director for the Gun Owners of America has zigzagged across the country spreading dark fears and conspiracy theories about the federal government, hawking his self-published books about guns and God, and encouraging sheriffs to join his new organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and be a “line in the sand” against government agents. He recently bragged that he had spoken at 120 Tea Party events across the country (his website says 70), in addition to the many law enforcement gatherings, local political fundraisers, John Birch Society (JBS) meetings, and other events where he is treated as a hero.
Whether he’s speaking to local chapters of the JBS or appearing on far-right radio shows like James Edwards’ white nationalist program “The Political Cesspool,” Mack’s central message is that the federal government has far overstepped its constitutional bounds and that county sheriffs have the rightful authority — and duty — to protect citizens from what he believes are its unlawful incursions. This idea that sheriffs have supremacy over other law enforcement agencies and even the federal government was born and gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s when it was pushed by the explicitly racist, anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus (Latin for “power of the county”), which capitalized on the Midwestern farm crisis of the era to promote an extreme antigovernment ideology. The Posse’s founding tract, the so-called Blue Book written by white supremacist Henry Lamont Beach, asserted the county was “the highest authority of government in our Republic.”
There is little question that Mack has been an important player in the resurgence of the Patriot movement, which has seen its numbers mushroom from 149 groups in 2008, the year President Obama was elected, to 1,274 by the end of 2011. His ideas, which include a heavy emphasis on state sovereignty, resonate with the armed militias and others in the broader movement, in addition to racist extremists across the radical right who chafe at federal laws protecting minorities from hate crimes and discrimination.
While Mack shakes his fist at the federal government and wants to devolve virtually all power to state and local governments, he says he does not favor violence. But his rhetoric is certainly confrontational and seems to fuel the passions of extremists as well as audiences closer to the mainstream. He once said he prayed for the day when a sheriff would be the “first one to fire the next shot around the world and arrest a couple of IRS agents.”
To the Tea Party activists who delight in his pugilistic attitude toward the government they distrust, Mack may seem like a natural ally. But some analysts say the ideas he is helping to transmit from the fringes of the radical right into the mainstream of conservative thought are extreme and, perhaps, dangerous.
“Ever since the notion of the supremacy of the county sheriff became popularized, it has continued to remain attractive — though when people hear it, they don’t understand that what is behind it is violent lawlessness and vigilantism,” said Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door, a book that chronicles the racist underpinnings of the militia movement of the 1990s. “That’s what Richard Mack stands for when you strip all the window dressing away: lawlessness and vigilantism.”
Down the Rabbit Hole
Richard Ivan Mack’s animus toward the government might have never come to fruition. As a child in Safford, Ariz., where he was born into a conservative Mormon family on Dec. 27, 1952, he dreamed of becoming an FBI agent, like his father. He became an Eagle Scout, played football, baseball and basketball, and says he never smoked or drank. Despite his clean living, he was unable to gain admittance to the FBI following his 1978 graduation from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies. (He later attended the FBI National Academy and graduated in 1992.)
It was in Provo that Mack met the man who appears to have shaped his ideology more than any other — a fellow Mormon named W. Cleon Skousen.
By the time Mack saw him speak in 1984, Skousen was a leading light of right-wing radicalism, a theocrat who believed the decline of America began with passage of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equality for the former slaves and others. A former Salt Lake City police chief who spent 11 years with the FBI, Skousen had toured the country in the late 1950s and into the 1960s to whip up anti-communist fervor under the banner of the John Birch Society. His best-selling book in 1958, The Naked Capitalist, warned of a cabal of global elites who were scheming to create a worldwide, collectivist government — what the JBS and Patriot groups now fear as the “New World Order.” He demonized the federal regulatory agencies and wanted to abolish civil rights laws, labor unions, the minimum wage, the income and estate taxes, the direct election of U.S. senators, the wall between church and state, and many other government programs and initiatives.
To Mack, Skousen’s controversial worldview was much more than a trip down the rabbit hole of Birch-style conspiracy theories. Years later, according to the Arizona Daily Star, Mack said of the 240 officers who heard Skousen speak: “I don’t know what happened to the other 239 of them, but this one was converted.”
In 1988, armed with Skousen’s views, Mack left Utah with his wife and children for his home state of Arizona and ran for sheriff as a Democrat in Graham County. He defeated the incumbent with 58% of the vote and, long before Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would do so in Phoenix, began building a citizens’ militia to help his deputies.
He was re-elected four years later, and it was during his second term that Mack, backed with money and manpower from the National Rifle Association (NRA), became the first sheriff, on Feb. 28, 1994, to challenge the Clinton administration over the constitutionality of the Brady Act. His lawsuit was based on provisions requiring local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks for gun sales. That single event propelled him to fame on the Patriot lecture circuit, but it also drew the blueprint for his political demise in Arizona. Two years later, discontented with the time he spent on national issues, voters showed him the door.
The transition from being the focal point of national news to yesterday’s fascination left Mack listless, and he took up work at a car dealership while finishing his first book, From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns. Published in 1996, the book retold the reasons he challenged the federal government, and its pages dripped with charged antigovernment venom.
“The U.S. Constitution was written to protect honest Americans,” Mack wrote in the book’s final chapter. “Attempts to dilute its content and meaning must be met with fierce resistance in the polling places of America, in the Halls of Congress — and, if necessary, in the streets, the hills and dales of the Republic.”
In the mid-1990s, Mack went to work as the chief lobbyist for the Gun Owners of America, a Springfield, Va.-based organization whose executive director, Larry Pratt, played a major role in bringing the idea of militias to the radical right.
In 1994, Mack sued the federal government over certain provisions of the Brady Act, a gun-control measure, prompting the NRA to name him “Law Enforcement Officer of the year.” When, on June 27, 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, Mack became a media sensation overnight. He soon began speaking at militia gatherings and other venues to promote his book, often while wearing his sheriff’s uniform even though he no longer held office. Mack had found a new role in life as an antigovernment icon.
Cross-Pollinating the Right
Mack has tried to return to elected office several times since losing his sheriff’s badge. First, he ran for sheriff in Utah County, Utah, in 1998 as a Republican but lost in the primary. Then, he returned to Arizona and in 2006 ran under the Libertarian Party banner against incumbent U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican, but garnered just 3% of the vote in the general election.
Last year, Mack moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, a small town about 70 miles west of Austin. A group called the Patriots of Gillespie County announced on its website that “[t]hrough the efforts of some great Patriots, enough support was gained to be able to help bring Sheriff Mack to the Hill Country” and that Mack would open a local office where he would work to “educate communities and their sheriffs about the ability to stop runaway government wherever one lives.”
This year, Mack challenged U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a powerful, conservative GOP congressmen who has represented the state’s sparsely populated and largely white 21st Congressional District since 1987. Smith received the NRA’s highest rating and its endorsement. Mack lost badly in the Republican primary, receiving just 15 percent of the vote.
While Mack has been repeatedly rebuffed by the electorate, he remains highly popular among the most conservative elements of the right as well as those on the far fringes. Veteran investigative reporter David Neiwert, who has written extensively about extremism in America, said that Mack “treads the boundaries of the various sectors of America’s right wing and appears to belong to each of them at various times.” But, he added, Mack “is most at home in his native base: the populist right, the world of militias, constitutionalists and pseudo-libertarians.”
It so happens, though, that these worlds often intersect with the racist and xenophobic groups that see the nation as divinely created for white people. For example, on Sept. 8, Mack appeared on “The Political Cesspool,” a wildly racist radio show that has promoted the views of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, antigovernment conspiracy theorists and other extremists. He told host James Edwards, “We do have a solution for what’s going on in Washington, D.C. We can make the federal government irrelevant.”
Mack also has been a longtime supporter of white supremacist Randy Weaver. In 2003, he wrote the forward to Weaver’s book, Vicki, Sam and America: How the Government Killed All Three. It had been 11 years since the deadly siege of the Weavers’ cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, an event that helped fuel the militia movement of the 1990s, but Mack treated the event with fresh indignation. He chastised the federal government for inflicting an “unimaginable hell” on the Weavers and defended the family’s racist ties under the guise of “restor[ing] America as a country dedicated to freedom and liberty.”
“Those who told you Weaver was a bigot, a white supremacist, and a murderer or even worse, lied to you!” Mack wrote. “He was and is none of these things. Is he a white man? Yes. Is he a separatist? I suppose he is in a way; he does not believe in miscegenation (interracial marriage), but he holds no ill-will towards those who do. He also wanted to be left alone, especially from the government.”
Mack also once granted an interview to The Jubilee, a defunct, racist Christian Identity newspaper. And more recently, Mack has aligned himself with one of the nativist movement’s more flamboyant characters. The California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR) has helped Mack raise funds to get his CSPOA off the ground. The group’s founder, Barbara Coe, is best known for diatribes against Mexican “savages” and her wild conspiracy theories, including one detailing a secret Mexican plan to “reconquer” the American Southwest. Coe is also a self-described member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has described black people as a “retrograde species of humanity.”
Despite these relationships, Mack insists he is not a racist. And to make a point about how sheriffs should not enforce laws or mandates they don’t like, he often alludes to the arrest of the African-American seamstress Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Parks’ arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement. According to Mack, Parks would never have been arrested had the sheriff been true to his constitutional oath.
While he disavows the racism embraced by many with whom he consorts, he doesn’t shy away from the kind of baseless conspiracy theories that animate Patriot organizations.
In July 2011, Mack appeared on “The Alex Jones Show,” where he shared the radio host’s enthusiasm for the incredible, even floating the idea that the deadly 1995 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was staged by the government to ensure increased funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He’s also a board member of the Oath Keepers, a conspiracy-mongering Patriot group comprising veterans and active-duty military and police personnel who vow to disobey orders they consider unconstitutional. The hypothetical “10 Orders” that members pledge to disobey are based on typical Patriot fears: that the government will disarm law-abiding citizens, declare martial law, conduct warrantless searches, turn cities into concentration camps, confiscate food and property, and curtail freedom of speech and assembly.
“The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists,” Mack says on his website. “It is our own federal government.”
Over the past two years, Mack has been working to bring county sheriffs nationwide into the fold of the Patriot movement. He formed the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in 2011 to advance the principle that sheriffs must resist the government.
“The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass,’” Mack writes on the CSPOA website. He further writes that hundreds of police officers, sheriffs and others have “expressed a desire to be part of this Holy Cause of Liberty.” He vows to train them, state by state, and says that the local governments they represent will issue a “Declaration to the Federal Government regarding the abuses that we will no longer tolerate or accept.” That declaration, he says, will be enforced by those lawmen. “In short, the CSPOA will be the army to set our nation free.”
At the group’s inaugural conference last January in Las Vegas, more than 100 sheriffs from around the country gathered, including Elkhart County, Ind., Sheriff Brad Rogers, who garnered Patriot fame in December 2011 when he vowed to arrest Food and Drug Administration agents if they tried to inspect an Amish man’s dairy farm without a search warrant. “When I saw things like Waco and Ruby Ridge and [the] Hurricane Katrina gun grab, I’m telling you, as sheriff of Elkhart County, Ind., that stuff’s not going to happen in my county,” Rogers said.
The problem with the idea of sheriff supremacy is that it has absolutely no standing in historical or modern jurisprudence, according to Dennis Kenney, a professor of criminal justice with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University-New York. It’s the byproduct of a bygone era in American radicalism.
“There’s never been anything to it, and there will never be,” Kenney said. Still, the idea has taken root in some quarters. In Montana, lawmakers two years ago considered a proposal dubbed the “Sheriffs First” bill that would have required federal agents to receive a sheriff’s permission before making an arrest. In New Hampshire last August, a Republican candidate for sheriff came under fire for saying that a sheriff was justified in using deadly force to stop an abortion. In Delaware last April, the CSPOA supported the cause of Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher, who was fighting proposed legislation clarifying that sheriffs in that state do not have arrest powers. “If you have a sheriff that stands against tyranny in each of their counties, if he’s the chief law enforcement officer like he’s supposed to be, then he can block some of those enforcement efforts that the federal government or the state government mandates that may be unconstitutional,” Christopher said. “He can say no.”
And that just may be the endgame Mack is after — a generation of sheriffs whose politics are infused with radical-right views and whose understanding of the office of sheriff extends far beyond serving court papers, running local jails and policing areas outside the city limits. What Mack seems to want is a nation of county sheriffs who believe the government is the enemy.
“These are now sheriffs who are learning and willing to learn how to become oath keeper sheriffs — that they would actually be willing to interpose on behalf of the people to protect their freedom,” Mack said in February. “These are true American sheriffs.”