On January 10th, Democrat Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, fresh from being sworn in to a second term, signed into law a sweeping gun control bill that bans so-called “assault-style weapons”(which he absurdly calls “weapons of war”), including numerous handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and, of course, the AR-15 platform rifle which is the most popular rifle in the country.
Pritzker’s action has put him on a collision course with more than seven dozen of the state’s elected sheriffs who are refusing to enforce at least some of the new law’s provisions because they consider it, rightly, to conflict with the Second Amendment.
Among many provisions onerous to otherwise law-abiding firearms owners, the new law requires that individuals fortunate enough to have owned any now-banned firearms prior to Pritzker’s action must register them with the state police in order to avoid becoming instant criminals.
The broad reach of the governor’s mandate, including the draconian registration mandates, is the flashpoint between him and the sheriffs who have publicly stated their disagreement with the law.
The new law became effective when Pritzker signed it, and the governor indicated he expects all law enforcement officials in the state, including sheriffs, to enforce its many mandates. In response to the sheriffs’ statements indicating they will not do his bidding, the governor issued a veiled threat that the offending sheriffs would not be in office long.
Sheriffs in Illinois, as in the vast majority of the 50 states, are elected by voters, and thereby immune from Pritzker’s huffing and puffing. Still, the confrontation between these two elected public figures – a governor and local county sheriffs – illustrates one of the key dynamics of American government: the absence of “one-size-fits-all” governance.
We see this at the national level, where the federal government is charged with exercising only those powers enumerated to it by the Constitution. The remaining powers are reserved to the states and the People. However, those reserved powers cannot be exercised by states in violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed to individuals in the Constitution, including the right to keep and bear arms. And here lies the clash between Illinois sheriffs and the state’s governor.
We see this “duality” of government power within states even at the local government level. For example, most of the more than 3,000 sheriffs in the country are constitutional officers elected by the voters, and thus protected against removal or veto by another local or state official such as a governor who disagrees with their actions.
In this regard, the status of sheriffs as elected officials places them in a category different from police chiefs, who are appointed by local county, parish, or city officials and thereby answerable not to the voters but to the appointing officials.
This difference accounts for the fact that it often is sheriffs and their deputies, rather than local police officers, who are more sensitive to constitutional issues when it comes to gun control, and therefore more hesitant to enforce provisions arguably or clearly at odds with the right to keep and bear arms incorporated in the Second Amendment.
Left-wing groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have long opposed such actions by elected sheriffs, but it reflects a history of independence on the part of local elected law enforcement officials against central power dating back to the Magna Carta, signed by Britain’s King John under pressure from local officials in 1215 — principles later embodied in our Constitution.
This phenomenon is playing out now in Illinois in the context of Pritzker‘s new, far-reaching gun control law, but it is far from the first or only such conflict. During the 2020-21 COVID pandemic, for example, when many state officials instituted mandates for public employees to be vaccinated and for law enforcement agencies to enforce mask and social distance mandates, many sheriffs refused to carry out such edicts.
The new gun control law, which many experts consider unconstitutional and at odds with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, will quickly be challenged in court — as promised, for example, by the Illinois State Rifle Association.
For the interim at least, Illinois citizens living in counties represented by these Constitution-minded sheriffs, will have at least some protection against the governor and the Democrat-controlled state legislature’s anti-firearms agenda.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.