Several Oregon sheriffs last week decided to begin a standoff with our federal government by prematurely declaring their refusal to enforce any new gun-control laws.
Before Vice President Joe Biden presented President Barack Obama with a list of what turned out to be sensible recommendations for reducing gun violence, Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller wrote to Biden declaring that his department would not enforce—or permit federal agents to enforce—any federal regulation he deemed unconstitutional. Sheriffs Jim Hensley of Crook County and John Hanlin of Douglas County dittoed that pledge. Some Utah sheriff's have since joined the posse, too.
Mueller told the Albany Democrat-Herald his stance was justified by Mack and Printz v. United States, a 1997 Supreme Court decision favoring sheriffs who refused to conduct background checks on gun buyers under a stopgap provision of the Brady Bill.
That provision of the bill was struck on grounds the federal government lacks authority to order state employees to enforce its laws. Things returned to normal after the ruling, with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives enforcing those federal gun laws, including the assault weapons ban enacted in 1994. If the 113th Congress re-enacts that ban, and enacts one on large-capacity magazines, as the president has requested, those bans, too, will be enforced by the ATF—it appears over the dead bodies of Oregon sheriffs.
In the kind of Wild West world these sheriffs have dreamed up, you might find an O.K. Corral at a local gun show where an elected sheriff would oppose ATF agents for confiscating arms outlawed under the new provisions. Imagine something like the South during the civil rights movement only everyone would have assault rifles and law enforcement officials would be deciding ad hoc where their allegiance lies.
The fact that sworn lawmen made such an outrageous threat—and made it regarding restrictions that had yet to be debated, much less passed, signed into law, and challenged in court—underscores their lack of faith in the democratic process.
There will always be those whose passions surpass their reasoning on issues involving guns. We expect that even the most modest efforts to curtail gun purchases, such as requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchases and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, will be viewed in some quarters as evidence that a hulking, oppressive, freedom-hating government is bent on trampling their liberties. But we expect better from our elected officials.
Bushmaster, maker of the semiautomatic rifle used by last year's spree killers in Colorado, Oregon and Connecticut, has appealed to a pervasive, deep-seated sense of powerlessness in an ad campaign that said buying an A-15 was the way to get your "man card reissued." Hopefully we have larger motivations and higher standards in the wake of Newtown, Clackamas Town Square and yet another shooting at a college campus just this week.
Sheriffs Mueller, Hensley and Hanlin, we still collectively make the laws, and our courts decide whether they pass constitutional muster; you just enforce them. In order to keep law and order in our fair state, we're giving you a boot in your "man-card" area as a reminder.