An assortment of guns are shown at Sporting Goods Discounters, Co.,. 1449 Scalp Ave. Richland Township, on Feb. 28, 2018.

HARRISBURG – A gun rights group has volunteers working across Pennsylvania lobbying to get county leaders to pass Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances that declare that local officials won’t comply with what it considers unconstitutional restrictions on firearms law.

Bradford County officials approved such a resolution in December declaring the county a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

The Gun Owners of America in Pennsylvania is organizing efforts to get Bradford and the rest of the state’s 67 counties to go a step further and pass ordinances that explicitly state that county resources won’t be used to support federal or state laws that restrict the Second Amendment unconstitutionally, said Val Finnell, state director for the GOA.

But whether the move is done through a resolution or an ordinance, the moves have little impact, several legal experts agreed.

“You can’t pass a law that says you’re going to break the law,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, who called the Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances and resolutions “publicity stunts.”

After a series of Second Amendment Sanctuary votes in Virginia, that state’s Attorney General Mark Herring released an advisory opinion on Dec. 20 concluding that the Second Amendment sanctuaries “have no legal effect.”

Local governments “are required to comply with all laws enacted by the General Assembly until those laws are repealed by the legislature or invalidated by the judiciary,” Herring wrote.

However, even if these moves carry little legal weight, they could still influence the way law enforcement officials do their job, said Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“To the extent that police chiefs and especially prosecutors view these actions by local governments as reflections of widespread community sentiment, they may feel more comfortable in adjusting their own exercise of discretion in making arrests and in charging decisions,” Lund said. “At least in that sense, it is probably not accurate to characterize them as mere ‘publicity stunts.’”

Like Bradford County, most local governments have opted for resolutions, that serve more as expression of opinion than an ordinance that is intended to set law, according to an analysis by the Mises Institute, an Alabama-based think tank focusing on economics and issues related to individual freedom. In Texas, more than dozen Texas counties passed non-binding Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions, according the Nov. 25 Mises Institute report.

“The same has happened in dozens of counties in Illinois, along with Lake County, Florida, Mohave County, Arizona, and elsewhere,” according to the group.

In Union County, the Buffalo Township supervisors are considering a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution and residents there say they hope the county commissioners consider a countywide Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinance. "We're here tonight to start the ball rolling on a movement that we hope others in this county will take notice of," said Buffalo Township Chairman Joseph Wise.

The move is part of a national trend, with 419 similar resolutions and ordinances already passed in counties and local communities in 20 states, said Matt Patterson, director of state and local affairs for the Gun Owners of America, a national organization based in Springfield, Va. Patterson said his group is working to determine how many ordinances have been passed, rather than resolutions. That data wasn't immediately available, he said.

Political statements

Patterson said that Second Amendment Sanctuary movement is a grassroots response to the lobbying by gun control groups.

“They are a good way of sending a message and showing the will of the people,” he said.

The Second Amendment Sanctuary issue took in Virginia after Democrats took control of both chambers of the state Legislature, Finnell said.

After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left the shooter and 12 other people dead, Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam introduced an eight-point gun control plan. The plan included a ban on the sale of assault weapons, and a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines. The governor later said that Virginians who already own assault weapons will not be forced to turn in their guns, but will be forced to register their assault weapons with the state by a certain deadline.

The move to establish Second Amendment Sanctuaries across Pennsylvania “is a pre-emptive strike” in mobilizing to demonstrate the political power of voters interested in gun-rights issues ahead of the 2020, Finnell said.

Gun rights activists in Pennsylvania learned from what took place in Virginia and are trying to mobilize before gun-control gets too much momentum in Harrisburg, he said.

Pennsylvania has divided government at the state Capitol with a Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, and Republicans holding majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. Republicans hold a 107-92 edge in the state House with four vacancies. Republicans hold a 27-21 edge in the state Senate. Senator John Yudichak, of Luzerne, switched from Democrat to independent last year, and there is one vacancy.

Wolf has called on the General Assembly to act on gun control measures, including an Extreme Risk Protection Order bill that would make it easier for law enforcement and relatives to get the courts to order that gun owners relinquish their firearms if they appear to pose a threat to themselves or others. But the gun bills have been stalled in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Gun rights activists have opposed the red flag laws, arguing they don’t provide enough due process to firearms owners. Finnell said the red flag is an example of the type of legislation he thinks the Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances would cover.

In addition to Pennsylvania, those states include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In addition, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas and Wyoming have passed statewide Second Amendment Sanctuary laws, Patterson said. Patterson said that in doing so, those states followed the model established in the movement across the country in which states have relaxed marijuana laws, despite the federal ban on the drug.

Among the most recent counties to act is Carter County in Kentucky, where officials on Monday passed a resolution declaring that county a Second Amendment Sanctuary.

Legal teeth?

Finnell said that his group is organizing grassroots efforts to get counties to pass ordinances declaring they won’t provide local resources to support state or federal efforts to curtail gun rights.

The resolutions are “tooth-less,” Finnell said.

Others contacted for this story said that neither an ordinance nor a resolution will provide any greater authority to local or county leaders to defy state or federal law.

In co-opting the word “sanctuary” in their name, the gun rights advocates draw a parallel to the decision by leaders in so-called sanctuary cities, who are refusing to assist the federal government enforce immigration law, Ledewitz said.

But the unwillingness to provide local help to enforce immigration law isn’t based on the assertion that immigration enforcement is unconstitutional, it’s based on the legal doctrine that local and state government’s don’t have to enforce federal law.

State, county or local governments officials could refuse to enforce any new federal gun laws under the same doctrine, Ledewitz said.

There is no comparable anti-commandeering doctrine that would allow county or local governments to refuse to enforce state law without suing in court to prove that the state law is improper, he said.

Passing a Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinance wouldn’t change that, Ledewitz said.

Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director for The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said that the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions and ordinances are largely symbolic.

If elected officials want to argue that a state or federal law is unconstitutional, the proper way to do that is to sue and have a judge decide, he said.

Symbolic or not, Skaggs described the Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions and ordinances as “troubling and dangerous.”

He said 15 states have enacted Extreme Risk Protection Order, so-called Red Flag laws like the one proposed in Pennsylvania.

“If you have sheriffs saying they are not going to utilize that life-saving tool, that’s a disservice,” Skaggs said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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