What is a "sanctuary county" for gun owners?
A "gun sanctuary" trend spreading across Illinois counties in support of Second Amendment rights has raised questions about just who is allowed to decide what is or isn't constitutional where guns are concerned.
At least 26 of Illinois' 102 counties have passed "gun sanctuary" resolutions or similar measures. The term is a play on the phrase "sanctuary city," which describes cities where political and law enforcement leaders limit their cooperation with federal immigration policies and vow to protect immigrant rights.
"Gun sanctuary" advocates say they, too, deserve protection — from lawmakers in the capital pushing for stricter laws on firearms.
So, proponents went to their County Board members and asked them to pass "gun sanctuary" resolutions. In some cases, the resolutions are designed to send a message to Springfield, and in other cases, they promise county employees won't enforce gun control laws they consider "unconstitutional."
But others say the resolutions bypass the law and create a slippery slope for who decides what is constitutional and what isn't.
The trend picked up speed in May and came to a total of at least 26 counties in June, with more counties planning to consider measures in July. Here's a look at why the counties passed Second Amendment rights support resolutions, what their resolutions say — and why some counties are resisting.
The 26 counties are: Brown, Christian, Clark, Clay, Cumberland, Douglas, Effingham, Fayette, Ford, Greene, Hamilton, Hardin, Henry, Iroquois, Jasper, Jefferson, Lawrence, Monroe, Perry, Pope, Saline, Shelby, Washington, Wayne, White and Woodford.
The 'send a message' approach
The Iroquois County Board was the first in recent months to pass a resolution opposing gun control bills in the Illinois General Assembly, though the county did not use the term "gun sanctuary."
Like other resolutions modeled after Iroquois County's, the measure declares five bills in the Illinois General Assembly unconstitutional:
- House Bill 1465: Would raise the legal gun purchase age from 18 to 21
- HB 1467: Would prohibit municipalities from regulating "the possession and ownership of assault weapons in a manner less restrictive than the regulation by the State."
- HB 1468 (dead): Would have allowed a court to temporarily take guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others. Would have allowed established a 72-hour waiting period for delivering a firearm after purchase.
- HB 1469: An amendment to the bill would make it illegal to deliver, sell, purchase or possess a "large capacity ammunition feeding device."
- Senate Bill 1657 (vetoed): Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed this bill that would have made it illegal to sell firearms without a state-issued license.
Chad McGinnis represents District 1 in Iroquois County, a rural county about 90 miles south of Chicago. The county, whose economy mainly subsists on farming, is the third largest geographically in the state but only has a population of roughly 27,000.
McGinnis came up with the resolution most counties used in following his county's lead.
"I never imagined my resolution would do what it did," McGinnis said. "I lit the spark and the fuel was already laid."
McGinnis says he and his constituents were upset with how lawmakers, some from Chicago, swooped in to file gun control bills after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
The bills were the final straw for gun rights advocates in Iroquois County who were already disillusioned with Chicago politics for other reasons, McGinnis said. Even some Democrats in the county are "kind of upset with the mainstream," he added.
Failure to relinquish banned weapons under the proposed laws would make gun owners "instant felons," McGinnis said, a point the resolution repeats three times.
"Today they’re legal, tomorrow they’re a felon. You don't make laws that way," McGinnis said.
But Iroquois County's resolution isn't meant to stop county employees from enforcing the law. Rather, it is meant to send a message to lawmakers in Springfield and Chicago saying the county doesn't support their gun control laws and ordinances.
McGinnis said Board members toyed with the idea of adding "gun sanctuary" terminology to the resolution, which would have implied county employees would protect gun owners in violation of any new laws. Ultimately, the Board decided to leave "gun sanctuary" out, aiming instead to send a message to lawmakers.
"The whole point was to get a seat at the table," McGinnis said. "I'm hoping I can get a seat at the table and talk real solutions."
Effingham County, the second county to pass a similar resolution, took Iroquois County's measure to the next step by adding the phrase "gun sanctuary."
The 'we won't enforce your laws' approach
The "gun sanctuary" resolution in Effingham County specifically says employees won't enforce laws that "unconstitutionally restrict the Second Amendment."
In the same breath, county leaders said the "gun sanctuary" designation in Effingham County is symbolic. The Sheriff's Office won't base enforcement on the resolution, the County State's Attorney Bryan Kibler told the Effingham Daily News.
But when Monroe County, a rural county southeast of St. Louis, passed a similar resolution, Sheriff Neal Rohlfing told the News-Democrat his department will not enforce any of the gun control bills in the state General Assembly if they pass into law.
"In my opinion, none of these are going to create any more of a safe environment, especially in Monroe County," Rohlfind said after the County Board passed the resolution in May.
Not enforcing the law could be a problem, said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican from Murphysboro, if it comes to not following federal law.
"There are locals reacting. If they want to react, they can... I’m not for sanctuary cities whenever it comes to disobeying federal law. If they’re suggesting that they’re going to disobey federal law, then I can’t support that. If they’re just enhancing on what exists in federal law, so let them send a statement."
The irony of the term "sanctuary" isn't lost on supporters of the resolution. Most people who favor "gun sanctuary" counties are not in favor of "sanctuary cities" to protect immigrants, the Iroquois County Board member said. Chicago and San Francisco are among the cities that have designated themselves safe cities for immigrants.
"A lot of your big cities are doing it," McGinnis said. "Why can’t we do it to protect our own rights?"
Bruce Malone, a Democratic Madison County Board member from Alton, had an answer to that question at a recent County Board meeting. Malone, a high school social studies teacher, says the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter and guardian of the Constitution.
"We're in danger of destroying the basic fabrics of a representative democracy by saying we can decide what's constitutional or what isn't," Malone said. "I'm not opposed to this because it's about guns, but because I think it violates the principles of what I think our country is founded on."
Mark Maggos, a Madison County resident who teaches firearm training courses in Godfrey, said he opposes any "anti-gun laws" in the state General Assembly, though he said the resolution in his county "has no lawful weight."
"This just amounts to a local and statewide show of force to those that are opposed to the Second Amendment," Maggos said.
But the resolutions can still cause confusion about if county employees will enforce any new gun control laws, said Trish Oberweis, a Madison County resident and professor of criminal justice at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
"We're talking about promoting confusion and chaos when the purpose of law is to provide structure and order and continuity," Oberweis said.
The firearm training teacher said even if he doesn't like the law, he follows it.
"If the law were passed, I’d have to abide," Maggos said.
The 'will go to voters' approach
Two counties, Madison and Williamson, plan to send the question to voters on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Williamson County Board commissioners haven't approved a question for the ballot yet, while Madison County's will ask voters if they want the county to become a "sanctuary county for law-abiding gun owners to protect them from unconstitutional gun laws passed by the Illinois General Assembly."
If voters approve the Madison County resolution, which will not be legally binding, it will send a message to the General Assembly saying residents don't want their gun rights messed with, said Tom McRae, a Republican from Bethalto.
Brent Gentry, a commissioner for the Williamson County Board, reflected that sentiment, according to The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan. The resolution would not have an impact on any laws, Gentry added, saying anything the state General Assembly does tops the County.
But that's not stopping gun rights advocates from promoting the resolutions. Philip Chapman, a Republican Madison County Board member, said "many citizens fear an erosion of our personal freedoms." He said the resolution would be a "respectful" message to lawmakers reminding them of citizens' "natural right" to defend themselves.
In a statement to fellow Board members, Chapman cited the section of the Declaration of Independence that outlines the rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness":
"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."
The purpose of the Declaration, ratified on July 4, 1776, was to explain and announce the 13 American colonies' intent to be regarded as independent from Great Britain. The Declaration is perhaps America's most fundamental statement of beliefs, though the Supreme Court does not always recognize it as a legally binding document, unlike the Constitution.
Regardless, Chapman says he wants to hear "what the people have to say" through the non-biding referendum, "given the increasing power of government to unlawfully intrude into citizens' lives, the 'God given' natural right to protect one's self, property, and constitutional freedoms by force."
Oberweis, the SIUE criminal justice professor, said the question is reckless because it asks voters "to set the law aside."
"You're authorizing permission for Madison County residents to place themselves above the law. Even symbolically, this is a grave error," Oberweis said at the most recent County Board meeting. "It's not about guns. It's about the law. The law has provisions for the duties and responsibilities of various bodies of law, and inviting voters to set aside legitimately created law is outside the purview of this body."
Pending resolutions and counties who said 'no'
Some County Boards do not plan to take up the "gun sanctuary" issue. In Jackson County, whose county seat is Carbondale, some County Board members even suggested a resolution supporting the gun control bills in the General Assembly.
Julie Peterson, who represents portions of southwest Carbondale in Jackson County, proposed a resolution to support the bills in a May committee meeting. Peterson said the bills are "common sense" and do not infringe on gun owners' rights, according to County records.
With support from three other Board members in committee, the resolution made it to the County Board later that month. But it was met with strong disapproval from members of the public and some Board members, The Southern Illinoisan reported.
Peterson did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
In deep Southern Illinois, where the Mississippi River meets the Ohio River near Cairo, Alexander County Clerk Ellen Henderson-Bigham said the Board won't consider a "gun sanctuary" resolution.
Henderson-Bigham printed off the resolution provided to other county clerks in the state and gave it to County Board members. They looked it over and asked for their state's attorney's opinion.
State's Attorney Zachary Gowin told Board members such a resolution wouldn't stand a legal test, Henderson-Bigham said. Gowin did not reply to a request for comment.
"Even though it would be a sanctuary county, if State Police or FBI came in, we wouldn't be able to stand against them legally," Henderson-Bigham said. "No reason to mess with it."
Oberweis, the SIUE criminal justice professor, agreed that "gun sanctuary" resolutions pose a legal problem.
"While that's a way of symbolically protesting, the words of what they're doing undeniably allow people to pick and choose which laws they want to follow," Oberweis said. "We're a nation of laws. If we lose that, we lose everything."
Even though Maggos, the firearm trainer from Godfrey, said he supports law and order, he said at a recent Board meeting how he practices his Second Amendment rights is up to him.
"My method of how I defend my family, myself and practice my Second Amendment rights within the meaning and intention our wise forefathers wrote it is my business, no one else's, and shall not be infringed," Maggos said.
At least 12 counties will consider adopting similar resolutions in the coming months.