A new kind of gun law is on the ballot in 10 Oregon counties this year. The so-called "Second Amendment Preservation Ordinances" would give those county sheriffs the authority to determine if state and federal gun laws are constitutional and bar county resources from being used to enforce them.
The measures represent a new legal strategy from gun rights groups.
“It's a brand-new approach,” said Rob Taylor, an Oregon gun rights activist who is pushing these ordinances. “It's something that really hasn't been tried in a lot of places.”
Taylor runs the Committee for the Preservation of the Second Amendment. The group wrote and shepherded the ballot measure to Election Day with help of the Oregon chapters of militia groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.
The proposed ordinance is based on the same 10th Amendment principles that sanctuary cities use to justify not enforcing federal immigration laws, Taylor said. The 10th Amendment, which defines the relationship between the state and federal government, affirms the principle that any powers not granted to the federal government would be reserved to the states or the people.
“We thought if a state can do that with the 10th Amendment, why couldn't a county do that against the state using the same type of anti-commandeering principles,” Taylor said.
In a state where Democrats in Portland and Salem have used their control over all the major branches of government to push stricter gun laws, giving local officials control over enforcing the laws could gain traction.
Taylor said people from California, Utah, Iowa and Pennsylvania have reached out to him about proposing similar initiatives in their counties.
Support From Militia Groups
Taylor isn’t working alone.
Local members of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers militias have been organizing the effort across the state.
Tom McKirgan, a member of the Oregon chapter of the Three Percenters, is the Southern Oregon coordinator for Taylor’s Committee to Protect the Second Amendment, and helped draft the Douglas County ordinance. He said the ordinances are necessary to stop what he calls over-reaching gun laws passed in Salem.
“If you look at the Second Amendment where it says that it ‘shall not be infringed,’ that's exactly what it means — our founders meant that,” McKirgan said. “Don't mess with it. And that's what they're doing; they're ignoring the rule of law.”
The Three Percenters are typically skeptical of government overreach. But when asked if these ordinances give too much authority to the county sheriff, McKirgan said police officers already make those choices as part of their job.
“Every police officer makes that decision every day of their career: whether or not something is constitutional,” McKirgan said.
Other law enforcement officials say that is true: They determine if a law has been broken, which is an interpretation. But the decision ultimately falls to the courts to decide if law enforcement made the correct decision.
And those same courts may decide these ordinances are illegal if they pass next week.
Oregon state law says all gun legislation must be made at the state level. In 2013, the Kansas Legislature passed a similar law trying to circumvent federal gun laws — only to have it quickly struck down by federal courts.
Many of the sheriffs who would be affected by the proposed ordinance if it passes are supportive. But they also don’t take the ordinance literally.
While many sheriffs in populous counties can play second fiddle to their police chief counterparts, in rural areas the sheriff has much more authority. Everyone in Southern Oregon’s rural Douglas County knows Sheriff John Hanlin.
Hanlin said the ordinance is more of a message to lawmakers in Salem.
“I think more than anything it's just symbolic,” Hanlin said. “We all know the state Legislature can pass laws that we can't ignore.”
Not everyone is reassured.
Tatiana Resetnikov, an activist in Douglas County, is trying to mobilize voters across the state against the preservation ordinances.
Resetnikov is a Republican and said she supports the Second Amendment.
After taking a closer look at this ordinance, Resetnikov said she became nervous about putting so much power in the hands of one person.
“This is a swindle on Republicans by a very select group of people who have every intention of having their own little militia,” Resetnikov said. “And it is not a conspiracy theory for something like that to happen in Oregon.”
In 2016, Three Percenters were among the militias present during the 41-day occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. They claimed they were there to protect the population and act as intermediaries between federal law enforcement and the occupiers.
At his home in rural Camas Valley, McKirgan said despite what people think, his fellow militia members aren’t maniacal or fanatical. He said they’re focused on protecting individual rights.
“And if we have to fight physically to do it we will,” McKirgan said. “It's just that simple. Our country depends on people like us. If we didn't have people like us we wouldn't have a country from the very beginning.”
Taylor said he hopes to see this strategy being used across the country and expects to see similar ordinances nationwide regardless of what happens Tuesday in Oregon.
OPB Election Coverage 2018
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