Since the gruesome mass shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, there have been major developments in the campaign to bring sanity to our nation's gun laws. On January 16, President Obama announced a historic package of comprehensive gun reform proposals during a press conference at the White House. Vice President Joe Biden has launched a nationwide campaign to explain and promote these policies to the American public. Last Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced new legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons like the one used in the mass shooting in Newtown. On Saturday, thousands of Americans (including a group from Newtown) traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington for Gun Control in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
In the midst of this robust national conversation about how we can use the power of the federal government to protect families and communities from violence, pro-gun extremists are increasingly asserting that they are above the law when it comes to firearms regulation. Case in point is a recent movement by a small group of sheriffs to assert "Posse Comitatus" theory and issue an open -- and sometimes violent -- challenge to the federal government.
The Posse Comitatus movement promotes the bizarre and flagrantly unconstitutional idea that county sheriffs are the only legitimate law enforcement authority. The movement derived in part from Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and was described in 1998 by hate group expert Daniel Levitas:
While the roots of the so-called Christian Patriot movement and the Posse Comitatus can be traced back to the 19th century and even earlier, the present trend really got its start nearly 30 years ago, in the early 1970s. The Posse Comitatus, which is Latin for "power of the county," was originally founded by William Potter Gale in 1970. But the movement did not gain significant momentum until Gale was able to join his Christian Identity beliefs [a racist theology identifying Jews as the literal progeny of Satan and blacks as subhuman] with the growing anti-tax movement in the United States ... In reality, Gale's ideas were really nothing more than verbal flourishes used to disguise old-fashioned vigilantism ... If you look at the philosophy of today's militias, common-law courts and county supremacy movement, it is absolutely inseparable from the original concepts set forth by Gale almost 30 years ago. What the Posse has done to survive between then and now has been to be very flexible and to inject those ideas into whatever social conditions exist and use those conditions opportunistically.
Indeed, Posse Comitatus acolytes are actively injecting themselves into today's gun violence prevention debate by fueling anti-government angst and racial prejudice. Nationwide, news accounts have reported on threatening letters and/or statements issued by individual sheriffs who believe they have no duty to abide by federal laws they don't approve of. At the center of his campaign is a former sheriff with close ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA), Richard Mack.
As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Mack launched the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) in 2011. Its mission statement declares, "The county sheriff is the line in the sand. The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, 'Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.' This is not only within the scope of the sheriff's authority; it's the sheriff's sworn duty."
Mack has a long record of extremist activism and extensive ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA). After the Brady Bill was signed into law in 1993, the NRA funded lawsuits in nine different states attempting to have the law struck down as unconstitutional. Mack was one of the sheriffs the NRA picked as a plaintiff. Another was current NRA board member Jay Printz. The case of Printz v. United States eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the federal government could not compel local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks. This effort greatly weakened the nation's background check system (Printz is the primary reason the FBI's NICS database is missing millions of disqualifying records today), but for his role Mack was crowned NRA Law Officer of the Year and inducted into the NRA Hall of Fame.
Mack's role in the case wasn't so popular with voters, however. Two years later, he lost reelection and has never won elected office since. He did, however, quickly find a home in the anti-government Patriot Movement. Mack is a frequent speaker at far-right events and has made radio appearances on The Alex Jones Show as well as the white nationalist radio show, The Political Cesspool. Mack is also a board member of the Oath Keepers, which SPLC describes as "a conspiracy-mongering Patriot group comprising veterans and active-duty military and police personnel who vow to disobey orders they consider unconstitutional."
At the CSPOA website, Mack proudly touts a list of 90 sheriffs and two state sheriffs' associations as having taken up his call to resist enforcement of gun laws. The list includes the Utah Sheriffs' Association, which in a letter to President Obama envisioned a violent confrontation with federal authorities over guns laws, writing, "We are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of [the Second Amendment's] traditional interpretation." Regarding the president's newly-announced gun policy proposals, the Utah sheriffs said, "As you deliberate, please remember the Founders of this great nation created the Constitution, and its accompanying Bill of Rights, in an effort to protect citizens from all forms of tyrannical subjugation... We pray the Almighty will guide the People's Representatives collectively."
Also listed is Linn County (Oregon) Sheriff Tim Mueller, who told the president, "We must not allow, nor shall we tolerate, the actions of criminals, no matter how heinous the crimes, to prompt politicians to enact laws that will infringe upon the liberties of responsible citizens who have broken no laws."
This campaign among sheriffs comes as many conservative legislators across the country are pushing bills asserting their legal supremacy over national gun laws, including efforts in Missouri, Wyoming, Arizona, Michigan and others. Montana's conservatives have in recent years been pushing the idea that they can nullify all manner of national law. The nullification debate has deep roots in American history, and was a central tactic of the Southern states that so vigorously defended slavery. But even the conservative Heritage Foundation has no desire to re-litigate the Civil War, stating that nullification is based on "bad history." In their words, "There is no clause or implied power in either the national or the various state constitutions that enables states to veto federal laws unilaterally."
The current crop of Posse Comitatus-style and state-level nullifiers are a key cog in what a recent report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point calls the modern "Anti-Federalist" movement. The report classifies Anti-Federalist efforts to undermine the federal government through a range of ideas, including New World Order conspiracies, militia advocacy and fears of environmental and firearm regulation. Its authors warn, "In the last few years, especially since 2007, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating in the far-right of American politics." The insurrectionist implications and violent potential of nullification couldn't be clearer.
Meanwhile, threats of violence distract us from the conversation we should be having right now about how to best protect our children in the wake of a gruesome school shooting perpetrated by a dangerous, possibly mentally ill individual who never should have gotten anywhere near an AR-15.
That said, we ignore the threats of sheriffs and would-be sheriffs like Richard Mack at our own peril. Today it's an attack on gun laws. In the 1960s, it was Birmingham, Alabama Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Conner defying federal orders to desegregate public facilities. Tomorrow, it could be an attack on women's rights, LGBT rights, voting rights or labor laws. Let us not embolden extremists by shrinking from a debate about the supremacy of federal law and the government's role in vindicating and protecting individual rights. Out of this terrible tragedy in Newtown arises the potential to not only prevent the future loss of precious lives, but also to recommit to the pillars of democracy in our Constitution that form the basis of American freedom.