COLUMBUS, Kan. — Cherokee County may soon declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary, an expression of opposition to restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms.
County commissioners discussed the possibility during a meeting Jan. 6, on the heels of hundreds of other cities and counties around the country that also have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. What that means may vary from county to county and city to city based on the specific language of the resolutions, but the term generally is a declaration by local officials to resist what they consider unconstitutional restrictions on the Second Amendment.
No resolution has been written or approved yet in Cherokee County.
Cory Moates, a commissioner and longtime gun owner, said in an interview with the Globe on Thursday that the panel is still in the early stages of discussion but plan to explore it further.
“A Second Amendment sanctuary means you’re declaring your sovereignty from the state, so if the state does something against Second Amendment rights, then basically the government can’t issue a law or an order within that county boundary,” he said.
Moates said other counties in the state also are beginning to look at similar designations, which could help them in drafting a resolution. Moates said the panel is currently unsure what its resolution will entail and what that would mean for state and federal gun regulations.
“We don’t have a resolution, and we’re just in the beginning stages of this,” he said. “We’re waiting on some drafts that some of these other counties have made up so we could kind of use it as a template.”
Some officials question whether such a move would have any legal standing for states, counties or cities that opposed new gun laws, including red flag laws.
The U.S. Constitution prevents states from nullifying federal laws, for example.
“States generally do not have the ability to tell the federal government, ‘Get out of our state and stop enforcing your laws,’” said Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who also identifies as a gun-rights supporter. “But states do generally have the ability to tell the federal government, ‘You are not able to commandeer state resources and compel us to enforce your laws.’”
Toni Spieth, a member of the Cherokee County Democrat Central Committee, spoke out against the idea at the meeting earlier this month.
“I feel very strongly that we need to have stricter gun laws,” she said. “For instance, assault rifles should never be allowed to be owned by the regular people, but if law enforcement needs it, I’m for it. The general public doesn’t need a bump stock. I think everyone who buys a gun should have a background check. Those are the kinds of laws that I’m interested in and that many conservative Republicans seem to be very frightened of.”
Why pass this now?
Sanctuary city designations have been around for decades and have been used to express support for immigrants or immigration.
The topic of a Second Amendment sanctuary designation was recently brought up in Southeast Kansas following events happening throughout the nation, including Virginia, where the National Rifle Association is based. The Second Amendment sanctuary movement began there last year after Democrats promising red flag and other gun control measures took control of both chambers of the Virginia Legislature in the Nov. 5 election. The state also has a Democratic governor.
Kansas is one of the few states that has statewide protections for the Second Amendment. Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed the Second Amendment Protection Act into law in 2013, which prevents any government interference with the right of individual Kansas residents to keep and bear arms.
Current Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who was elected in 2018, has endorsed universal background checks for gun purchases after supporting a red flag law following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which more than 30 people were killed.
If the Second Amendment is already protected in Kansas, then why is Cherokee County looking to pass its own resolution?
Moates said the problem is that state government could change statutes with a simple vote, and the proposed Second Amendment sanctuary plan would protect Cherokee County at the local level.
“This is going to be something that’s pursued, but we’re waiting to get more information and make sure it’s right for the county,” he added.
Lorie Johnson, who chairs the Cherokee County Kansas Republican Party, expressed support for a proposed Second Amendment sanctuary plan at the recent commission meeting.
“We feel like it’s important,” she said. “Our governor isn’t friendly to the Second Amendment. She’s not in support of our gun rights, freedoms, that sort of thing. You just never know what a governor can do ... as far as the Second Amendment is concerned. We just want to have those protections in place so locally, we can help protect lawful gun owners.”
What this means has yet to be tested in the courts.
Darrell Miller, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University in North Carolina, said the sanctuary movement is largely a phenomenon in rural communities where people have grown up hunting and treasure their guns and gun rights.
“For whatever reasons, people, especially in these communities, have a deep-seated fear that universal firearm confiscation is just around the corner,” Miller said.
But whether Second Amendment sanctuary status works has yet to be seen.
In an advisory opinion last month, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, 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-Va., also also said the Democratic governor of Virginia 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.
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 resist new laws they believe violate the Second Amendment.
Anti-red flag law legislation
Meanwhile, two local Southeast Kansas lawmakers — state Rep. Michael Houser, R-Columbus, and state Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Baxter Springs — recently filed twin “anti-red flag” bills that would prohibit the U.S. government or other states from taking guns away from residents whom the courts deem a danger to themselves.
“Under this bill, the state will not enforce any red flag laws and will be null and void because red flag laws circumvent due process,” Hilderbrand said. “This will guarantee the due process for Kansans, so you have to go through due process before somebody will come in and take your guns in the state of Kansas.”
Kansas doesn’t have any red flag laws in place through which relatives or police can obtain a court order to remove firearms from someone’s possession. However, the anti-red flag bills would prevent local city and county governments from enacting such laws. They would even go so far as to make it a felony for someone to help enforce such an order.
Supporters of red flag laws say they reduce suicides and gun violence as well as lessen the risk of mass shootings. Gun-rights supporters contend they violate not only the right to own firearms but other constitutional guarantees, such as the right to due legal process, to confront an accuser, and against unreasonable searches and seizures of property.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.