A number of sheriffs in upstate New York are declaring that their officers will not prioritize or “aggressively enforce” the state’s recently enacted, highly restrictive gun control law. These elected sheriffs have concluded quite correctly that the state’s new law is at odds with both the Constitution of the United States and with the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared New York’s previous and long-standing gun control law – the Sullivan Act – unconstitutional.
The sheriffs’ actions have rekindled a recurring debate about the powers of the more than three thousand local sheriffs serving in every state except Alaska and Connecticut.
The United States has had elected sheriffs long before there was a “United States of America,” with the first one taking office in Virginia in 1652. Police departments, on the other hand, are a relatively new phenomenon. The first municipal police department not established until 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Unlike most county sheriffs, who hold their positions under their state constitutions, police chiefs answer only to local office holders who appointed them, not to the voters. It is this distinction that has caused a number of sheriffs in “Blue States” to earn the ire of the Left.
Two factors have exacerbated this enmity in recent years – increasingly restrictive gun control measures and abusive COVID mandates by Blue State governors and legislatures. Sheriffs who decline to prioritize enforcing such laws find themselves increasingly maligned by the Left, notwithstanding the fact that they are carrying out their sworn duty to support the federal and state constitutions, and in accord with the wishes of the voters they represent.
Consider Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who declared in 2021 that he would not force officers under his command to be vaccinated against COVID, as mandated by that county’s liberal Board of Supervisors.
Even more vexing to liberals, however, is the number of sheriffs who in recent years have refused to enforce what they consider unconstitutional infringements on the rights of citizens in their jurisdictions to exercise their Second Amendment rights in the face of Blue State gun control laws.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) berates these sheriffs who follow the Constitution of the United States as “radicalized” officials who do not themselves understand the Constitution. The recently discredited SPLC simply cannot bring itself to accept that elected law enforcement officials should be permitted to resist such government overreach.
However, these “constitutional sheriffs” are not alone in their views. Since the Supreme Court’s seminal Bruen decision in June that tossed New York’s Sullivan Act, similarly restrictive laws in other states have fallen. Even more to the point, some of the very restrictions in the legislation signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul just days after the Supreme Court rendered its opinion, as part of her attempt to undercut the High Court’s directive, were blocked last week by a federal judge in New York City.
With state and federal courts seeming to agree with sheriffs who decline to vigorously enforce laws they view as inconsistent with their oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, especially as related to Second Amendment rights of citizens in their jurisdictions, it is becoming increasingly difficult for their detractors on the Left to argue with a straight face that the sheriffs are the outliers.
Three years ago, the gun control group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — “Everytown for Gun Safety” — published a paper highly critical of sheriffs who declined to prioritize the gun control measures the organization championed. The title of the piece was, When Sheriffs Refuse to Follow the Law.
It is, however, becoming increasingly clear to citizens across the country that it is liberal, anti-gun public officials like Hochul who are not following the law, and that it is constitutional sheriffs who are the ones following it.
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.