Is Mark Kessler, the suspended police chief of a Pennsylvania hamlet, shaping a movement that views gun control as unconstitutional? Or have his incendiary video tactics simply worked against the efforts of other lawmen who have similar Second Amendment views?
Chief Kessler was suspended a month ago after using a county-owned rifle to spray rounds of ammunition while giving an expletive-laced rant about misguided liberals and the importance of the Second Amendment.
The video of his display has been viewed millions of times online. Kessler, a former coal miner, was supposed to find out Friday night from local officials in Gilberton, Pa., whether he’d be fired for his aggressive hijinks. But that hearing has been postponed, the Associated Press reports, citing Kessler’s lawyer, and it could be rescheduled for this coming week.
While Kessler’s actions might have been extreme, he’s hardly the only US lawman adamantly opposed to new curbs on guns. Indeed, hundreds of US sheriffs have joined a movement by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) in Higley, Ariz., to call gun control illegal, and they’re vowing to resist any attempts by federal agents to enforce new gun laws in their counties.
Kessler has added his own twist to the CSPOA movement, starting what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “militia-like” group known as the Constitution Security Force, which has grown to more than 40 chapters in just a few months.
Now, the question is whether Kessler’s video antics – just this week he aired another video in which he shot at likenesses of two nemeses on the local city council – will draw more attention, and adherents, to the pro-gun cause or just rub mainstream America the wrong way.
Kessler says his mission has drawn applause from gun owners across America. But Richard Mack, who heads the CSPOA, criticizes Kessler’s methods in an interview with the Monitor, although he says he supports Kessler personally in his fight to keep his job.
“Whether you like the Second Amendment or not, whether you think the Founding Fathers were crazy, or whatever else, the Constitution says gun control in America is against the law,” says Mr. Mack, a two-time congressional candidate and former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz. “But as far as the tactics of Chief Kessler, we do not support the tactics he has used. It’s kind of some shock-and-awe stuff that doesn’t really seem to provide any real leadership or direction.”
The push for more gun control after December's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School aggravated a simmering unease about guns and gun control. President Obama is often referred to as the greatest gun salesman in US history as gun shops have struggled to keep arms and ammo in stock during his presidency.
But this spring, sheriffs, especially, began raising objections to the gun-control push, saying it is not only unconstitutional, but also bad public-safety policy. What Mack and others protest is what they see as the targeting of “lawful citizens” who own guns – a strategy that they say does little to stop actual criminals who use illegally bought guns.
Sheriffs in Utah, California, and New York, among other states, have banded together to publicly state they won’t stand for new gun controls and to protest policies that they say make criminals out of law-abiding Americans only interested in protecting their homes.
David Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County, became the unofficial spokesman of this overall movement after he aired a public-service announcement in February urging citizens to train themselves how to use firearms in a safe way.
But as with other lawmen, Sheriff Clarke also had an undercurrent of concern in his commentary about Washington overreaching on gun control – an effort that Clarke has suggested would be deterred by many Americans, including lawmen like himself.
“I believe that if somebody tried to enforce some sort of order ... to collect everybody’s [guns],... you would see the second coming of an American Revolution, the likes of which would make the first Revolution pale by comparison,” Clarke told a radio station earlier this year.
Also earlier this year, Kessler began agitating against the federal gun-control push. He held meetings with the Gilberton City Council alongside an armed citizen posse. The Constitution Security Force, he says, is intended to thwart any forceful attempt by the US government to disarm civilians.
Kessler told AP this week that he's "not calling for anybody to take up arms against our government." But that doesn’t mean, he says, that he would stand by if the government tried to take his guns. "I would resist," he said. "I'd fight for freedom, and if it cost me my life, then so be it."
The pro-Second Amendment movement certainly isn’t supported by all US police chiefs. Many chiefs of large urban police departments are on the record in support of gun-control measures that they believe would help their officers be safer on the streets.
But while those chiefs may oversee more people, the pro-guns sheriffs' movement arguably oversees more US territory. That’s troubling to some who track right-wing extremism in the US.
“The idea of all these sheriffs refusing to follow federal law and willfully disobeying our legal system is quite something,” says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project in Montgomery, Ala. “This concept about the sheriff being the highest law enforcement officer has a long history among right-wing extremists, going back to the posse comitatus movement of the 1970s.”
What’s significant, she adds, is that “some of these counties are really big, and they represent large chunks of Western territory.”