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Battle Lines

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., schoolhouse slaughter, more than 400 sheriffs are promising to “oppose and disallow” any new federal gun control measures. Much of their brazen talk about taking the law into their own hands, even at the cost of their lives, has its roots in the radical and racist Posse Comitatus organization.

A sheriff in Kentucky was the first, and hundreds more fell in line — all vowing to stand up to the federal government if it dared restrict gun rights following the massacres of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., and moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., last year. More than 400 of the nation’s 3,080 sheriffs have signed a pledge to “oppose and disallow” new gun measures, as have sheriffs associations in 15 states. Organized under the aegis of Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who first became a hero to the radical right in the 1990s, the sheriffs are part of a broad political pushback against the prospect of even modest new gun control measures. What sets their protest apart is the militant language, adopted by some, that raises the specter of violent resistance and incorporates the radical views of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, which has mushroomed since President Obama took office and made inroads into the law enforcement community.

The pledge reads, for the most part, more like a political statement than a call to arms, and it would be difficult to imagine county sheriffs resorting to violence to resist the federal government. But in an interview with the far-right “news” website WorldNetDaily, Mack claimed that many of the sheriffs have said they “would lay down their lives first rather than allow any more federal control” and would “do everything they could to stop gun control and gun confiscation.”

Newtown, CT

Mack has a long history of gun rights activism. In the early 1990s, the National Rifle Association recruited him to challenge provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which instituted federal background checks on firearms purchases. In 2011, he formed the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) to recruit sheriffs and police officers to stand as “an army to set our nation free.” The county sheriff, the CSPOA says on its website, is “the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.’”

Those bounds apparently were breached in January when Obama signed 23 executive actions intended to tighten background checks and marginally increase the federal government’s oversight of guns without the benefit of new legislation.

Shortly thereafter, Mack’s CSPOA introduced the pledge, which was later endorsed by a “Liberty Coalition” that included Patriot groups like the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, the Oath Keepers, We the People, Gun Owners of America, and the Tenth Amendment Center, a group that advocates the alleged right of states to nullify federal laws.

The first to sign was Sheriff Danny Peyman, whose jurisdiction in Jackson County, Ky., lies deep in the heart of Appalachia. He told the Intelligence Report that he feared the Second Amendment was in danger. “They’ve tried to weaken it, they’ve tried to compromise it,” Peyman said. “Basically they’re just going to chip away at it to completely dissolve it.”

While it is not clear what will become of the movement in the aftermath of Congress’ failure to pass gun control legislation in April, the sheriffs’ uprising does represent the notable return of an ideology popularized by the racist, anti-Semitic movement known as the Posse Comitatus — that the county sheriff is the pinnacle of legal authority, charged with protecting American citizens from their own federal government.

Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, an iconic hero to the 1990s militia movement, has organized hundreds of sheriffs around the country who promise to"oppose and disallow" any new federal gun control measures. Mack says many of them "would lay down their lives" rather than submit.

That fear was expressed by Peyman, who told the Report that if the federal government calls in soldiers from the United Nations to round up American guns, an event some have begun to suggest is inevitable, there would be dire consequences.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Peyman asked, flabbergasted the answer wasn’t apparent. “A bloodbath. And they don’t want that.”

The War on Guns
Until this year, there had been no serious talk of gun control since Congress passed the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.

Even after the July 20, 2012, mass shooting during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead and 58 injured, there was little discussion of new legislation. But five months later, on Dec. 14, the unthinkable happened in Newtown: A mentally unstable gunman walked into an elementary school and started slaughtering first graders, ages 6 and 7, with a semiautomatic assault rifle. Twenty children were killed, along with six adults.

Obama, in a televised address on the day of the shooting, called for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Then, on Jan. 16, he and Vice President Joe Biden introduced legislative proposals to institute universal background checks for gun purchases and to ban military-style assault rifles and magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

Almost immediately, the Patriot movement exploded with worry and anger.

Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and lawyer who founded and leads the Oath Keepers, a conspiracy theory-minded group made up of former military and police personnel, called Obama’s executive orders and proposed legislation the work of “disarmament freaks” intent on taking “the power of the sword” from the American people.

“It is the height of Orwellian perversion of language and logic to say that disarming you of the most effective arms for combat that you still have is somehow not really disarming you,” Rhodes wrote in a “Personal Pledge of Resistance” posted on the Oath Keepers website. “The truth is that our semi-automatic, military pattern rifles are the single most important kind of arm we can own … When you are disarmed of your military rifles, you are DISARMED.”

The fear soon morphed into worries that the federal government would begin confiscating guns, even though no one has proposed such a thing and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller that Americans have a fundamental right to own firearms but that certain limitations were permissible.

Amid this uproar, rumors that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was buying 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition set Patriot tongues wagging. The conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones earlier had raised suspicions about the purchase, which had been disclosed in the Federal Register. Jones warned of an “arms race against the American people” and said the government was “gearing up for total collapse, they’re gearing up for huge wars.” If Americans no longer had guns, the new reasoning went, the war would be much easier.

“Something strange is going on,” echoed the conservative website in February. “Federal non-military agencies bought two billion rounds of ammunition in the last 10 months.”

The truth was that the DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were indeed embarking on a multi-year purchase of ammunition, mostly for use during training exercises in the coming years. The DHS said that 70,000 agents and officers from 90 federal agencies used its training facilities last year.

Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, has been one of the most intransigent voices in the gun control debate, resisting all attempts to impose even the mildest measures.

The following week, Glenn Beck hosted four sheriffs on his Internet television show, “The Blaze,” to talk about what they believed was the tyrannical overreach of the federal government, a common theme for Beck, and how they, as county law enforcement officers, had “banded together for our Second Amendment rights.”

The stakes were high, Beck said. “The war on guns. It’s real. It’s here. And it’s just the beginning.”

Rise of the County Sheriff
The four sheriffs on Beck’s show that day — David Clarke of Wisconsin, Tim Mueller and Glenn Palmer of Oregon and Steve Cox of Missouri — had answered the call of the CSPOA, a little-known group that has been growing in prominence on the Patriot right since Mack founded it two years ago.

In the years since he successfully sued the government to block provisions of the Brady bill in the 1990s, Mack has become perhaps the biggest proselytizer of county sheriff supremacy, the idea that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authority. Legal experts say the notion, which gives rise to the term “constitutional sheriffs,” has no standing in historical or modern jurisprudence.

Linn County, Ore., Sheriff Tim Mueller wrote Vice President Joe Biden to say that any gun control measure he deemed unconstitutional “shall not be enforced by me or my deputies.”

The origins of sheriff supremacy are somewhat murky, but most experts attribute its genesis to the Posse Comitatus, a far-right antigovernment group that sprang up during the Midwest farm crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. Its name means “power of the county” in Latin. The Posse’s ideas found a lasting home in the radical corners of conservative America, birthing the county supremacy movement, common-law courts, militias and tax protesters, even the “sovereign citizens” movement — all of which have come roaring back to life since 2008.

The influence of the county supremacy movement was seen in Montana three years ago when lawmakers considered a legislative 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, a Republican candidate for sheriff came under fire for saying that a sheriff was justified in using deadly force to stop an abortion.

Now, these “constitutional sheriffs” are flexing their muscles in the gun debate. In Utah, all but one of the state’s 29 sheriffs have sent defiant letters to the White House. In New Mexico, 29 of 33 sheriffs did the same, all vowing to oppose “the current gun control scheme” and “any attempt to register gun owners or their firearms.”

In many cases, it is not altogether clear whether the sheriffs simply are voicing political opposition to new gun regulations, or whether they are taking the stand that they will refuse to enforce them. Linn County, Ore., Sheriff Tim Mueller, however, did make himself clear in a letter to Biden, in which he accused the government of trying to “exploit the deaths of innocent victims by advocating for laws” that would take guns away.

“Any federal regulation enacted by Congress or by executive order of the President offending the constitutional rights of my citizens shall not be enforced by me or my deputies,” Mueller wrote. “I refuse to participate, or stand idly by, while my citizens are turned into criminals due to the unconstitutional actions of misguided politicians.”

Others Disagree
Already, there has been a backlash from sheriffs who see fellow lawmen resisting the federal government as undermining the rule of law, and from lawmakers who have proposed legislation to remove from office sheriffs who refuse to enforce a law.

Even the White House has addressed the matter. On March 29, when asked about the growing body of sheriffs saying they would buck federal law, press secretary Jay Carney said: “There is not a single measure in this package of proposals the president has put forward that in any way violates the Constitution. In fact, they reflect the president’s commitment to Second Amendment rights.”

While these sheriffs may believe they are upholding their oaths, the undisputed fact remains that the legal authority they cite, the U.S. Constitution itself, established a court system to interpret the law and decide which statutes violate its provisions. It does not grant that authority to sheriffs, and they have no legitimate legal basis for their belief otherwise.

Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder chose to address a letter to constituents explaining why he did not stand with all of other Utah sheriffs against new gun laws. Undersheriff Scott Carver, who spoke to the Report, said the sheriff’s decision was about maintaining law and order. “A sheriff individually or collectively cannot interpret the Constitution and speak for everyone,” Carver said. “It would be total anarchy.”

Already, anarchy seems to loom. The CSPOA, while purporting to speak for all law enforcement, is attacking sheriffs who won’t sign the pledge. Those who refuse to take Mack’s hard-line stance are added to the “The Red Coat List.”

“As sheriffs and peace officers across the nation have risen up to defend the rights of the people … others have gone on the offensive, attempting to undermine the power of the sheriff in any way they can,” Mack wrote on March 20. “Thus we present to you the list of red coats … because they are coming.”

Close to 15% of America's 3,080 sheriffs have signed Richard Mack's pledge to "oppose and disallow" any new federal gun control legislation. The highest numbers have come from gun-heavy Western states like Texas, New Mexico and Utah. State sheriffs' associations have also signed the pledge in states depicted in dark red.

What CSPOA seems intent on creating is what Larry Pratt has dreamed about. As head of Gun Owners of America, Pratt once called for dozens of militias modeled after the death squads in Guatemala and the Philippines. Now, he wants sheriffs to create their own militias of deputized citizens to fight the feds. “The county sheriffs need to act and make new deputies to stop federal authority in the counties,” Pratt said. “This is a defensible idea. … A lot of citizens would stand up for their Second Amendment rights if they were protected by the sheriff.”

In letters to the White House, some sheriffs have portrayed the conflict in terms of life and death. The Utah Sheriffs’ Association letter to Obama says: “[A]s the duly-elected sheriffs of our respective counties, we will enforce the rights guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution. … We, like you, swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and we are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of its traditional interpretation.”

It is that Wild West mentality that has prompted some lawmakers, including Texas state Rep. Yvonne Davis, a Democrat from Dallas, to propose a bill that would allow for a state to remove an elected official not enforcing the law.

“We don’t want our elected officials who are sworn to uphold the Constitution to be able to decide when they’re going to be able to enforce the laws of our land,” Davis said. “We want them to be committed to their oaths.”