February 10, 2013

Sheriffs state position on gun control

Rachel Brown
rachelbrown@daltoncitizen.com

— While the nation debates stricter gun control measures and Congress is poised to consider additional legislation, sheriffs locally say they are, for the most part, just staying out of the way.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood and Murray County Sheriff Gary Langford both provided a copy of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association’s position when asked about their views on the topic. The position states the sheriffs will uphold their oath of office to support the Constitution, will “stand by the Second Amendment” and will “aggressively oppose” federal and state legislation that “infringes on law abiding citizens’ right to bear arms.” It also states the sheriffs agree to support legislation that penalizes criminals who use firearms during the commission of crimes.

The Georgia association is one of at least five state sheriffs associations (including those in New Mexico, Florida, Utah and Colorado) that have pledged to uphold and defend the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, in the wake of the debate that reached new heights after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults plus himself at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last December.

Neither sheriff locally is making a public, Utah-style pledge to defend the Constitution with their life, if necessary, to prevent federal officials from “descend(ing) upon our constituents and tak(ing) from them what the Bill of Rights ... has given them.” That was what members of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association said in a letter to President Obama dated Jan. 17.

Chitwood said whatever is decided at the federal level won’t directly affect his job. Federal officers, not county sheriff’s deputies, enforce federal laws, he said.

He does have opinions on some of the gun control issues that have been debated, such as a ban on “assault weapons” — a somewhat politicized term used to refer to certain kinds of semi-automatic firearms — as well as more stringent requirements for gun ownership.

“It’s not going to remove the criminal element within our society that we deal with every day,” he said. “There are background checks that are done now. You’re not going to stop the black market. Any laws that are proposed only affect law-abiding citizens. Law-abiding citizens do not break the law, generally speaking, so all these proposals are affecting the criminal element who generally speaking do not purchase weapons by legal means anyway.”

Chitwood is in his 20th year in office.

Langford said he doesn’t have an opinion on some of the specifics of the issues being debated, but he supports the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association statement.

“We support the Constitution and the Second Amendment, and we don’t want criminals to have firearms,” Langford said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep them from having them.”

Langford said he’s basically just watching and waiting to see what happens.

“I’m trying not to get involved too much in the federal part of it,” he said. “I would do what the law says that we have to do.”

Langford said since he’s so new to the sheriff position — he defeated longtime sheriff Howard Ensley in November and took office on Jan. 1 — he’s still working through some of the initial changes he’s having to make to get his administration in order. Not to mention the day-to-day law enforcement operations he would be tasked with anyhow, he said.



Interpreting the Constitution

J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said that’s how many sheriffs feel — so busy with the demands of the job that it’s difficult to take a collective stand on specific details in a debate that is ever-changing.

He said the association’s position on the gun debate was drawn up at a conference recently in which 95 of the state’s 159 sheriffs attended. The statement was approved by a board of directors, then by the rest of the membership, he said. It reads, “The sheriffs took an oath to support the Constitution and will stand by the Second Amendment. The sheriffs will aggressively oppose federal or state legislation which infringes upon law-abiding citizens’ right to bear arms.

“The sheriffs further agree to support any legislation that would effectively penalize criminals who use firearms in the commission of crimes.”

The wording is deliberately vague and innocuous.

“They swore an oath to support the Constitution. They’ve always done that,” Norris said. “I won’t speculate what that means because nobody’s infringed upon that right in this conversation.”

In other words, different sheriffs interpret the Constitution — and thereby what they’re oath-bound to uphold — in different ways. Norris said the association wasn’t ready to name specific ways its members would react the way the Utah association has done.

“They’ve made some pretty bold statements, but the sheriffs as a whole (in Georgia), we’ve got a huge state with a lot of counties, and sheriffs all over the state have ... different opinions about how to respond, but they all agreed on one thing: There wasn’t much to respond to.”

Norris said association members are waiting to see what unfolds before taking further action.

Chitwood said he doesn’t believe any of the gun control proposals will stop violence with guns. So what is the solution — or does any exist?

“If I knew that, me and you probably wouldn’t be talking,” he said. “You’ve had evil since the beginning of time.”

The National Sheriffs’ Association, which represents more than 3,000 sheriffs across the United States, announced support recently for “closing background check loopholes” before individuals can buy guns, prosecuting people who commit crimes with firearms, enhancing school security and “increasing access to mental health services for at-risk patients.” The association issued a statement Feb. 1 which said it recognizes the “ultimate authority of the courts” — and not the sheriffs — “in interpreting the scope of these constitutional rights.” Across the country, many members have said they disagree with the national association’s stance.

The Texas-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, of which former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack is founder, keeps an online list of sheriffs who have, according to the association, “vowed to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama’s unlawful gun control measures.” Nine Georgia sheriffs are on the list, none local. Mack has called local sheriffs “the last line of defense in their counties” against many unconstitutional gun control provisions.

“They promised when they took their oath and when they took their job to protect the people’s rights,” Mack said in an interview posted on the CSPOA’s website, cspoa.org, “and now we have sheriffs all over the country doing that, and that’s exactly what every one of them promised to do.”

=========

Georgia Sheriffs’ Association position on gun debate

“The sheriffs took an oath to support the Constitution and will stand by the Second Amendment. The sheriffs will aggressively oppose federal or state legislation which infringes upon law-abiding citizens’ right to bear arms.

“The sheriffs further agree to support any legislation that would effectively penalize criminals who use firearms in the commission of crimes.”



Second Amendment

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”