In the state often credited with kicking off the nationwide movement, so-called Second Amendment Sanctuaries are being put to their most significant test yet.
Shortly after Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D.) signed a bill banning “assault weapons” and certain ammunition magazines into law last week. Illinois gun owners have 300 days to register or otherwise dispose of the thousands of different models of guns affected by the ban. If they don’t, they could face serious criminal charges.
However, the actions of local officials across the state are calling that possibility into question. Many have begun to mobilize in opposition to enforcing the law. Sheriffs and State’s Attorneys of more than 80 Illinois counties have released statements decrying the law as “unconstitutional.” Most have publicly declared that they refuse to enforce it against otherwise law-abiding citizens.
“Until further direction from our courts, the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office will not expend the resources of Effingham County to ensure law-abiding gun owners are registering their firearms with the State, or arresting, otherwise law-abiding individuals, solely for their non-compliance with HB5471,” Effingham County Sheriff Paul Kuhns said in a public release.
“My office will exercise strict prosecutorial discretion in circumstances relating to enforcement of House Bill 5471, ensuring that the clearly-defined Second Amendment rights of our citizens remain undiminished,” Effingham County State’s Attorney Aaron Jones added. “While my office remains committed to protecting the citizens of Effingham County by prosecuting violent crimes, I have no intention of turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into convicted felons solely due to non-compliance with House Bill 5471.”
The sentiment was echoed in jurisdictions around the state with model language provided by the Illinois Sheriffs Association. Nine in 10 of the state’s sheriffs have now publicly declared their intention to disregard the law, according to the Associated Press. The sheer number of prosecutors and sheriffs who have come out against enforcing the new ban represents a new high water mark for the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement. That’s fitting for a trend that has its roots in none other than Effingham County, Illinois.
Resistance to gun control from higher up in the government has existed in some form for decades. The successful challenge of the Brady Act’s initial requirement that local law enforcement use their resources to conduct background checks on gun buyers in 1997’s Printz v. U.S. is one early success in the power struggle. Beginning in the mid-2000s and through the early 2010s, a handful of deep red states and localities around the country even passed resolutions suggesting that they wouldn’t obey gun laws they viewed as unconstitutional–though they were often primarily symbolic measures that have never been put to a significant test.
Those earlier efforts began to crystalize into the modern sanctuary movement starting with Pritzker’s 2018 election. Effingham County officials, alarmed by his win and the possibility of an assault weapons ban, passed the first resolution credited with coining the term “sanctuary” as applied to the Second Amendment. The resolution, which quickly spread to 70 additional counties across Illinois and later other states like Virginia, was a simple declaration that local officials would view any of the gun-control laws then under consideration by the legislature as unconstitutional.
“We’re just stealing the language that sanctuary cities use,” Bryan Kibler, former Effingham County State’s Attorney, told the Associated Press in reference to the immigration “sanctuary” movement at the time. “We wanted to get across that our Second Amendment rights are slowly being stripped away.”
Now, faced with a new set of gun-control measures, a similar dynamic is at play.
But unlike those previous resolutions, which predominately surfaced ad hoc wherever new gun-control measures were a possibility, the current crop of non-compliance declarations are being announced in response to a law that has passed. That creates a new paradigm testing the mettle of officials on both sides. Without local law enforcement support and few options to force their hand, backers of the ban are left without many options. The state’s gun owners could very well decide to disregard the registration requirement, and local law enforcement may well follow through on their promise not to bother them.
That has happened before.
Following the 2013 passage of the SAFE Act in New York, the refusal of some sheriffs to enforce its ban on certain guns and magazines coincided with widespread non-compliance. The most recent data suggests only about four percent of the guns required to be registered under the SAFE Act have actually been registered.
“It’s not that they aren’t aware of the law,” Paloma Capanna, a firearms lawyer who obtained the registration data, told Hudson Valley One in 2019. “The lack of registration is a massive act of civil disobedience by gun owners statewide.”
Since ninety percent of Illinois’ sheriffs are vowing to look the other way on this latest ban, it’s hard to see how the results don’t end up looking similar in the Land of Lincoln.
Of course, it remains to be seen how resolved the Illinois sheriffs are in refusing to enforce the gun ban and corresponding registry requirement. The rapid groundswell of opposition has already provoked a backlash from many of the state’s top Democratic lawmakers, including Governor Pritzker.
He has repeatedly suggested that the defiant sheriffs are “violating their oaths of office” and has threatened to fire those that refuse to enforce the ban. However, it does not appear that he has the power to remove duly-elected sheriffs from office under Illinois law.
Even if he can’t directly remove the local officials, Pritzker may hope to sway or replace them by other means. Or bypass them altogether.
“It’s our state police and law enforcement across the state that will, in fact, enforce this law, and these outlier sheriffs will comply or, frankly, they’ll have to answer to the voters,” Pritzker told NBC 5.
It’s possible the political pressure could wear some sheriffs down and cause them to reverse course. Or some might have misread what their constituents want and get an earful from residents clamoring to see a gun ban enforced. Pritzer could also prioritize using state police resources to try and enforce the ban on their own, though that would be a very tall order without local support.
If not, the rapid and organized adoption of non-enforcement policies across broad swaths of Illinois in response to a gun ban and registry requirement may become the biggest success story of the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement to date.