Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has jumped into the gun-control debate, telling Vice President Joe Biden in a letter, “I will NOT violate my Constitutional Oath.”
Hanlin’s letter, dated Tuesday, came one day after a similar letter from Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller.
“In conclusion, it is my position as Sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon that I will refuse to participate in, nor tolerate enforcement actions against citizens that are deemed unconstitutional,” Hanlin wrote.
Hanlin said Wednesday that he, Mueller and several other rural sheriffs at a recent conference of Oregon sheriffs discussed how the political mood seemed hostile toward the Second Amendment, and what they could do about it. Still, Hanlin said he was “a little surprised” when he saw Mueller’s headline-making missive.
“Once he stuck his neck out, I felt kind of obligated to support him,” Hanlin said.
Sheriffs in Curry and Crook counties also wrote letters protesting gun regulation. The letters are part of a pushback from some law enforcement officials following talk of stricter gun laws since a man shot and killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school. President Barack Obama has called for bans on automatic weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, among other new restrictions.
Obama has deputized his vice president to head a bipartisan gun violence committee and be his administration’s point man on gun control.
Hanlin told Biden he “fully agreed” with Mueller, who wrote that Biden’s panel lacked rural representation and accused the president of attempting to “exploit the deaths of innocent victims.”
The letter, addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., was posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page and within a day it was shared more than 3,000 times.
Hanlin said “99 percent” of the feedback he’s received has been positive. The comments attached to the letter appear to back him up.
One person commented: “Respect goes two ways. You have just shown the ultimate respect for us. You have my full respect and THANK YOU!”
For all the enthusiasm on display on Facebook, Hanlin said he didn’t write the letter to advertise a change of policy. He said he doubts any significant legislation will emerge from this national political moment, and if any does, he said he would consult with constitutional authorities before acting.
What his constituents read on Facebook were his political beliefs, he said, and he acknowledged, “my political views don’t have a lot to do with providing public safety.”
Hanlin points out that those beliefs are no secret and have gotten him elected sheriff twice. He said in this instance, the issue was too important to not stand up.
Gun-rights advocate Fred Dayton Jr. of Roseburg said rural counties have different attitudes toward gun rights and individual liberty than urban areas.
To combat gun violence, Dayton called for better mental health registries and more armed police in schools. He said that many anti-gun laws actually encourage gun violence by creating more people who can’t defend themselves and more public spaces where they can be attacked.
“I take great pride in the decision made by these four sheriffs. I’m in complete agreement,” Dayton said. “If the federal government wants to enact these laws, they should be the ones to enforce them.”
Democratic Party Chairman Dean Byers called Hanlin’s letter “premature” and “inappropriate,” given the “common-sense” nature of many of the restrictions being discussed.
Like many in this debate, Roseburg resident Judy Lasswell feels her upbringing helped shape her opinions, but her family never hunted or owned guns in the Portland area.
Lasswell is a part of local group Peace in Action, which hasn’t been meeting lately. She said outnumbered as she is in Douglas County, she works hard to understand the other side.
“I don’t like guns,” she said. “I feel the most important thing is to consider everything that’s on the table. It’s not as simple as one person’s view.”
Ofer Raban, associate professor with the University of Oregon School of Law, said Hanlin’s views on the constitutionality of gun laws are “not determinative.”
“Our system, thankfully, has a way of resolving constitutional disputes,” he said. “The courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court at the top, have the authoritative say about what the U.S. Constitution requires or forbids.”
• Garrett Andrews can be reached at 541-957-4218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.