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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Federal Gun Control and Local Law Enforcement

In the past few weeks, since President Obama has proposed new federal gun legislation, there has been a spate of statements issued by local law enforcement officials that they will refuse to enforce any federal gun control laws that they deem to be unconstitutional.  Most but not all of these officials are sheriffs and most but not all are in the southern and western States.  This has led to a spate of news stories in the mainstream media, suggesting or stating explicitly that there is something untoward or unusual about local officials declaring that they will not enforce a federal law.  This local piece, on this letter from Boone County, Kentucky Sheriff Michael Helmig, is typical.  Sheriff Helmig’s letter states:  “I do not believe the Federal Government . . . has the right to dictate to the states, counties or municipalities any mandate, regulation or administrative rule that violates the United States Constitution . . . .”

But, as my colleague John Bickers points out in the news piece, Sheriff Helmig is attacking a straw man.  Everyone agrees that the federal government cannot “dictate” to local state actors that they enforce any federal law, irrespective of whether the underlying law is constitutionally suspect.  The very act of forcing local officials to enforce federal law itself would be unconstitutional under the anti-commandeering principle.

So is all this – the sheriffs’ letters and the media’s reportage of them – much ado about nothing?  Well, yes and no.  Although local law enforcement officials cannot, consistently with the Constitution, be conscripted to enforce federal law, they can and often do participate voluntarily.  To give just one example, enforcement of federal narcotics laws often involve state and federal law enforcement working together.  But pretending that they can be required to enforce federal law and that they will refuse to enforce this law as a matter of principle makes them appear courageous and plays better with the voters than admitting that they can always pick and choose which federal laws to help enforce.  Likewise, the media’s portrayal of obstinate southern and western lawmen defying federal authority is a much more interesting and familiar tale for their readers than the true storyline.

Posted by Michael J.Z. Mannheimer on February 13, 2013 at 07:29 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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Since Police don't even have to protect us why do they exist. Oh I remember they get those fancy uniforms to wear until they retire on Our nickle.

Posted by: Dorf | Feb 13, 2013 8:02:55 PM

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