In early 2018, while survivors of the deadly Parkland school shooting in Florida were leading a renewed push for gun control across the country, a counter-movement was brewing in Illinois. Officials in rural Effingham County, a few hours downstate from Chicago, were looking to protest a spate of proposed firearm restrictions being considered by state lawmakers, and came up with a provocative resolution: The county declared itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” and threatened not to enforce new laws it viewed as a violation of Americans’ gun rights.
“Rural parts of America feel like the big city elites are slowly infringing upon what we see as our God-given right,” Bryan Kibler, the Effingham County state’s attorney who came up with the idea, told me in a recent interview. “There have been a lot of things that have upset us, but this seems to be the one that we draw the line on.”
Illinois’ urban-rural political divide is particularly pronounced in Effingham, a mostly white county of 30,000 that Donald Trump won by six points in 2016, even as the state as a whole went to Hillary Clinton by nearly 17. What set off their protest was five bills that had been under consideration by Illinois lawmakers, including proposals to ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazine clips and to raise the age limit of firearm ownership from 18 to 21. The legislation seemed reasonable enough — and even a self-described “hard right-wing guy” like Kibler says that there are certain restrictions, like those on convicted felons possessing guns, that he agrees with. But Kibler views the situation as “knuckleheads” in Chicago imposing their will on those who live outside the metropolitan area.
Effingham’s resolution — a subversive nod to the sanctuary laws passed in liberal cities that do not participate in federal immigration enforcement — was mostly a “symbolic” measure at first, Kibler says, as much about getting under the skin of those “big city elites” as anything else. But in the year since its passage last April, the “tongue-in-cheek” protest has developed into a movement, spreading like wildfire across the state and the country. More than half of the counties in Illinois have declared themselves gun sanctuaries. Jurisdictions in at least 12 other states, from North Carolina to Oregon, have either enacted or are considering such public declarations. Some states have seen an especially feverish spread of the movement, such as in Oregon, where far-right militia groups like the Oath Keepers have taken up the charge, and in New Mexico, where a majority of its 33 counties have adopted such resolutions.
“We’ve gotten past the symbolic stage,” Kibler said. “We’re standing up for ourselves.”
The idea appears to also have the fingerprints of the NRA on it. According to a new report out from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the powerful gun lobby “actively recruited” sheriffs in New Mexico to lobby for the adoption of Second Amendment sanctuary laws in their counties. (The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.)
The growing movement could become the latest front in the battle for gun control, which has long been stymied by Republicans on the national level — even after horrific killings like the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead and the 2017 Las Vegas massacre that killed more than 50 and wounded hundreds of others. But there has been recent progress in some state legislatures: The student activism spawned by the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland triggered a torrent of new restrictions in a number of states, and the 2018 midterms saw new Democratic majorities in several statehouses now willing to take up gun control. But the Second Amendment sanctuary movement raises questions about how — and if — local communities within those states will enforce those new laws.
“Some of them are feel-good and fairly benign,” Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, says of the resolutions. “But others have a ‘whereas’ clause” — vowing not to enforce laws — “that’s extremely dangerous.”
To its proponents, the movement is a necessary stand — and one that’s legally justified under the concept of prosecutorial discretion, which gives law enforcement officials a degree of control over what laws they prioritize with their resources. “We are not looking to sidestep or ignore the laws that are on the books,” Rhode Island State Sen. Elaine J. Morgan, who called this month for towns within her district to adopt Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions in response to proposed gun legislation, tells me. “We are simply sending a message that enough is enough.”
“Prosecutorial discretion is in large part based on what your community standards are,” Kibler says. “My community demands that we not charge these things.”
To its detractors, though, the movement is a roguish effort that threatens not just to undermine reasonable gun control legislation, but the rule of law itself.
“I think it sets a dangerous precedent,” Oregon Sheriff Michael Reese of Multnomah County, says, warning that such measures could make law enforcement “more politicized.” “As a sheriff, I’m not above the law or in a position to pick and choose which laws to enforce and support.”
In co-opting the language of sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, Kibler and other gun sanctuary proponents have waded into two of the most fraught issues of Trump era politics: immigration and gun control. But there are limits to the comparison. There’s no consensus legal definition for an immigration sanctuary city, but many — like San Francisco, one of the first to declare itself one way back in 1989 — simply decline to “assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law.” Immigration enforcement is the federal government’s job, many sanctuary cities essentially argue, not ours. But that’s different from refusing to carry out rules passed by state legislatures, which critics say subverts the law.
“It’s not for sheriffs to decide what laws are constitutional or unconstitutional,” says Nick Suplina, managing director for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. “The appropriate venue is a court, and the courts have routinely upheld these laws.”
Counties and law enforcement officials who decline to enforce gun control legislation could be opening themselves up to lawsuits, Viscoli says. It could also undermine public safety by undercutting common sense gun control, like a New Mexico law aimed at taking weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers.
“They’re creating complete chaos for people in terms of public safety,” Viscoli says. “It’s setting up a very, very dangerous precedent.”
What that could mean for gun control efforts remains to be seen. Illinois lawmakers are still pursuing gun control legislation, as are lawmakers in Oregon, Washington and Rhode Island. But more and more of those conservative counties are popping up in blue states to declare themselves gun sanctuaries — something Kibler suggested could at the very least deter legislators from spending political capital on what could be drawn-out fights.
“We got under their skin by using their words against them,” Kibler says. “I just don’t think the elites — they’re not used to the peasants down here getting their pitchforks and threatening to poke back at them.”