RALEIGH — As the national illegal immigration debate heated up, so-called “sanctuary city” policies — municipal and law enforcement rules and policies that limit local cooperation with immigration agents — became a flashpoint between liberals and conservatives. As judicial, legislative and executive elections resulted in party control changes in some states, gun control issues have become the new hot topic at the local level.
In Virginia, newly emboldened Democrats, led by Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va), are seeking tighter restrictions on guns. The response to state-level gun restrictions is a new movement by conservatives to enact “gun sanctuary” policies.
The scenes have unfolded in city council and county commissioners’ meetings across the country. Gun owners are demanding that their government leaders establish sanctuaries for gun rights.
The resolutions, promoted heavily by Second Amendment groups, vary from county to county, but most declare the intention of local officials to oppose any “unconstitutional restrictions” on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. In the last two months, more than 100 counties, cities and towns in Virginia have approved such resolutions.
The current movement began last year in Illinois and quickly spread to numerous states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina.
Gun control advocates are now proposing an array of new restrictions, including universal background checks, bans on semi-automatic rifles, magazine size limits and red flag laws that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people alleged to be dangerous to themselves or others.
One proposal by incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw has enflamed gun rights advocates and helped fuel the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement. The bill, as initially proposed, would make it a felony to sell, manufacture, purchase or possess assault weapons and certain magazines. Saslaw has since said that allowing current owners to keep their weapons “makes sense,” and he expects to amend the bill.
David Campbell, vice chairman of the Effingham County Board in Illinois, said his county was one of the first in the nation to pass a Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution in April 2018. Campbell said he and a local prosecutor chose the word “sanctuary” as a swipe at Democratic leaders who used the word to describe their refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement in the “sanctuary cities” movement.
“We thought, well, if they can do that, why can’t we make Effingham County a sanctuary for legal, law-abiding gun owners?” Campbell said.
The movement caught fire, and today, 70 out the 102 counties in Illinois have approved the resolutions, Campbell said.
“What it’s designed to do is to send a message to our legislators letting them know we are not going to stand for unconstitutional laws being passed like they are trying to do,” Campbell said.
The two sides differ on how effective such resolutions will be.
In an advisory opinion issued Friday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called the resolutions “part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear” and said the resolutions “have no legal effect.”
U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Virginia, told the Washington Examiner that Northam could cut off state funds to counties that don’t comply with new gun control laws and could even call in the National Guard to enforce the laws, if necessary.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor has “absolutely no plans to call in the National Guard.”
Northam said he’s not “looking for retaliation” against localities that pass the resolutions and is confident that local law enforcement agents “will continue to enforce constitutional laws.” He said Virginians made it clear after the Virginia Beach shooting that they support new gun restrictions.
“Virginians spoke after that mass tragedy, they spoke on Nov. 5, and they basically said, ‘’enough is enough,’” Northam said.
But Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the resolutions will have teeth if local sheriffs and prosecutors agree to refuse to arrest or prosecute people who break new laws they believe violate the Second Amendment.
“The counties are saying, this stuff is unconstitutional. We don’t want it, we don’t want to enforce it, and in most cases, we won’t enforce it,” he said.
In North Carolina, Cherokee, Lincoln, Rowan, Rutherford, Surry and Wilkes counties have already adopted some form of gun sanctuary policy. Rowan passed their resolution unanimously Friday, Jan. 10. Now, Alexander, Davidson, Iredell and Randolph counties are seeking to add their names to the list of counties standing up for the Second Amendment.
“I believe in the Second Amendment and that it protects our citizens from the government infringing on our right to bear arms,” said Randolph County District Attorney Andy Gregson (R). “My oath is first and foremost to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and that includes upholding law-abiding citizens’ right to keep and bear arms.”
In Randolph County, one of the moore concentrated Republican voting blocs in N.C., gun rights are an important issue for citizens. “We want to be advocates for freedom in Randolph County and one of the unique freedoms set out in the Constitution is our right to keep and bear arms,” said County Commissioner Kenny Kidd (R). “We have been working with several national groups to draft new local ordinances that will send a message to our citizens and to Raleigh that we support the Second Amendment in Randolph County.”
According to Kidd, the county is considering draft language that would update countywide ordinances and a resolution similar to Cherokee County supporting gun ownership. “We are going to do more than just make a statement — and that’s important too — but we are going to enact ordinances that go beyond just platitudes,” said Kidd.
Kidd said the ordinances being considered include penalties for government officials who seek to limit gun ownership or track or register firearms and accessories and bars county officials from complying with federal or state laws that infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms. The county will likely be debating the ordinances and resolution at the Feb. 3 meeting of the commissioners.
Randolph County’s neighbor to the west, Davidson County, is also considering a gun sanctuary resolution and the draft resolution is on the agenda for the next meeting of the County Commissioners set for Jan. 14.
“It just says, we will not allow our county resources to be used towards any law that would be used to infringe on our Second Amendment,” County Commissioner Zak Crotts told Fox 8 News.
Crotts is the sponsor of the resolution and put it on the agenda for the next commissioners meeting calling it and an insurance policy against future restrictions on guns. “We may not have anything going on in North Carolina right now, but I think it’s important each county make a stand,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.