A vocal contingent of rural lawmen and red-state lawmakers say they won't go along with any new federal crackdowns on the ability of law-abiding Americans' to own guns, and that they'll even side with residents against federal authority in any gun seizure cases resulting from looming gun-control measures.
Remarking on "worrisome times," Sheriff Stacy Nicholson of Georgia's Gilmer County writes on Facebook that "I, along with a large number (which is growing daily) of Sheriffs across the state of Georgia as well as the entire United States, have no intention of following any orders of the federal government to perform any act which would be considered to be unlawful or a VIOLATION OF ANY PART OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OR THE CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA, nor will we permit it to be done if within our power to prevent it."
On Wednesday, the president proposed an ambitious package of what he called "common sense" gun-control laws in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and other mass shootings in recent years. In addition to 23 executive orders, President Obama urged Congress to pass a new assault-weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and a requirement for universal background checks of gun buyers.
The move has set off an debate that threatens to intensify the urban-rural divide in America and could complicate the enforcement of any new gun laws by federal agents in certain parts of the country.
One law-enforcement group is pushing to get at least 1,200 out of the nation's 31,000 sheriffs to publicly oppose the proposed laws, and legislators in at least two states – Wyoming and Texas – have vowed to introduce bills that would make it a felony for a federal agent to apply any new gun-restriction law against residents of those states.
The pushback recalls the 1997 Printz v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court found that Congress can't force police officers to do its will – in that case, carry out an interim provision of the Brady Act, which mandated local background checks of firearms purchasers.
But constitutional law experts say there's a big difference between passively refusing to enforce federal law – as some sheriffs are proposing – and actively standing in the way of federal law or Washington's agents.
"The hope is that, if state police want to champion Second Amendment rights, they'd do it through the courts," says Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. "But of course the whole vision of the Second Amendment is they don't do it through the courts – that when the federal intrusion comes, the states will be able to stand up to the federal government. The only problem is, we tried that once, and that was the Civil War."
The heated rhetoric partly obscures the actual dynamics of the new gun-control debate. Both pro- and anti-gun forces are trying to appeal to centrist, gun-friendly Americans in order to build a coalition large enough to defeat the intentions of the other side.
In this context, some of the statements by sheriffs and state lawmakers could be political posturing aimed at feeding the latent fear among many gun-rights advocates that increased gun registration will lead to a confiscation movement. But Mr. Obama has reiterated his support of the Second Amendment and the basic right of Americans to own and carry firearms both for hunting and self-protection.
Moreover, Congress has already given at least two of Obama's proposals – the bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – a cool reception.
But the honest concern voiced by some sheriffs and lawmakers is also a sign of how thoroughly the Second Amendment is woven into views of freedom in parts of rural America.
In Kentucky's Jackson County, which bears the slogan "Where the mountains and the bluegrass blend," and Sheriff Denny Peyman ranks the Second Amendment's authority alongside the Bible's authority.
"I swore an oath to the Constitution,” Mr. Peyman said on Fox News Monday. “And in the Constitution is the Second Amendment, and that’s what this country is based upon. How can I rightfully in my own mind and in my heart come in and take guns away from people when that is their protection?”
Acknowledging sheriff's unique position as directly elected law-enforcement chiefs, the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association in Fredericksburg, Texas, is pushing to get sheriffs to oppose the proposed laws. Richard Mack, the group's founder, sees the issue as fundamental to his view of what America is.
"Every intent is to keep this peaceful, but we also expect sheriffs to do what they're saying, which is to accept responsibility to protect citizens from exactly this type of overreach from the federal government," says Mr. Mack, a former sheriff in Arizona and co-plaintiff in Printz v. United States. "We're letting the federal government know that none of this is going to be tolerated, and it's not going to be allowed. The fact is, the ball is in their court, in Barack Obama's hands, and if he's going to push this, there's going to be some big-time problems."
Such statements – and proposed laws to arrest federal officers trying to carry out new gun restrictions – seem wrong-headed to University of Denver constitutional law professor Sam Kamin. "It sounds like the pre-Reconstruction South, where they vowed to arrest federal officers coming down to enforce federal law – which is just inherently inconsistent with the federal system," he says.
The political process "whereby the popular will is transformed into law through actions of Congress" has just begun, which means that "no one needs to be talking about armed resistance at this point," adds Professor Roosevelt of Penn.
Other rural sheriffs agree.
"I generally don't like to get in on the front of making wide sweeping pronouncements without seeing the actual bill," says Scott Berry, sheriff of Georgia's rural Oconee County. "My position is that constitutional means exactly what it says, and that we'll just wait and see what comes out of Washington. Until then, it's much ado about nothing."