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Southern Poverty Law Center Targeting 2A Sanctuary Movement

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The Southern Poverty Law Center bills itself as a non-partisan organization working “to advance the human rights of all people,” and it routinely draws positive press for its designation of “hate groups” and other attempts to portray itself as an arbiter of moral righteousness. The organization has taken some public relations hits in recent years, however, including co-founder Morris Dees being ousted in 2019 amid allegations of sexual harrassment, and the group routinely labels conservative organizations as hate groups, raising scads of cash by portraying non-profits like the Family Research Council as indisinguishable from violent neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Now the SPLC is targeting the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement as part of their “HateWatch” series. In a new report, the SPLC portrays the movement as a tool of “anti-government extremists” that “threaten to override the very democratic systems upon which the country was built.” Here’s a taste of their nonsense:

The push to impose “sanctuary” and similar legislation is not the result of an organic, grassroots movement but rather a well-funded campaign marketed by the gun lobby and supported by antigovernment extremist groups such as Gun Owners of America, Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). Joe Berlyak, owner of antigovernment extremist outlet Patriot Watch Media, led such an initiative in Stark County, Ohio.

This movement evolved from the “county supremacy” or “posse comitatus” movement, which translates to “power of the county.” The Posse Comitatus movement – which has no legal basis – pushed the idea that sheriffs were the highest law enforcement official in the land, had the authority to determine the constitutionality of laws and the power to call up male citizens ages 15 to 45 to serve as part of the sheriff’s posse, known as the posse comitatus. This lawless idea became the basis for the modern day “constitutional sheriffs” and militia movements.

The Constitutional Sheriffs movement today also incorrectly claims county sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authority and encourages sheriffs to use their “supreme power” to reject laws they believe are unconstitutional, especially gun laws.

Umm, no. As someone who covered the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement when it took off in Virginia in 2019, after Democrats took control of the state legislature for the first time in over 20 years, I know first hand that the movement was organic in nature. Groups like Gun Owners of America and the Virginia Citizens Defense League may have encouraged the movement, but in November and December of that year those groups could barely keep up with informing their members about the rapid growth of the movement, and were relying on those members to actually inform them about the cities, towns, and counties that were adopting 2A Sanctuary resolutions and ordinances.

As for the evolution of the movement, it’s not based on the posse comitatus movement. It’s based on the sanctuary policies that many Democrat-controlled localities have adopted when it comes to enforcing federal immigration law. And while the Southern Poverty Law Center hates the idea of local governments declaring that they won’t lift a finger or spend a dime to enforce any new federal gun control laws, the SPLC takes a very different view of localities doing the same when it comes to helping ICE or other federal agencies combat illegal immigration.

There is no definition of “sanctuary city” in federal law. It’s a political term, not a legal one. A variety of policies fall under the broad umbrella of what people call “sanctuary cities,” and a city, county, or state may have such policies without declaring itself a “sanctuary.” On the other hand, a city may call itself a “sanctuary city” or a “welcoming city” without implementing any new policies.

Sanctuary cities are NOT violating federal law. Despite what the president and the attorney general say, cities and counties are NOT required to enforce federal immigration law in any way. The only federal law on this issue is 8 U.S.C. § 1373, and all it says is that cities and counties cannot prohibit communication with the federal government regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status. That’s it—there is no requirement that cities or counties actually do anything.

Sanctuary cities that decline detainer requests are respecting the Constitution. Numerous courts have found that cities and counties that comply with ICE detainer requests in the absence of a judicial warrant are violating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, and have required them to pay money to the people they held in jail.

The legal rationale used by cities like San Francisco to deny help to federal immigration officials is the same used by counties who say they won’t help to enforce any new federal gun control measures. Both sanctuary movements have their roots in the Supreme Court decision in Printz vs. U.S.a 1997 decision in which the Court declared that local governments had no duty to enforce the (at the time) requirement that local law enforcement agencies conduct background checks on all commercial handgun purchases.

The Court constructed its opinion on the old principle that state legislatures are not subject to federal direction. The Court explained that while Congress may require the federal government to regulate commerce directly, in this case by performing background-checks on applicants for handgun ownership, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not empower it to compel state CLEOs to fulfill its federal tasks for it – even temporarily. The Court added that the Brady Bill could not require CLEOs to perform the related tasks of disposing of handgun-application forms or notifying certain applicants of the reasons for their refusal in writing, since the Brady Bill reserved such duties only for those CLEO’s who voluntarily accepted them.

Funny how the SPLC views one sanctuary policy as completely above board, while the other is a scurrilous attack on the sanctity of our democratic system of governance. Here’s how the SPLC tries to argue that the two sanctuary movements are completely different.

Immigration sanctuary policies do not attempt to violate federal immigration law or impede its enforcement. Rather, immigration sanctuary cities refuse to use local resources or officials to support federal authorities’ enforcement of these laws, which is legal and within their rights. State and local law enforcement are not constitutionally required to enforce federal laws.

State and local law enforcement are required to carry out state laws, and most of the gun laws opposed by 2A sanctuary policies are state-level laws. Local authorities are not tasked with carrying out federal gun laws, but they also cannot impede or prevent their enforcement. Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions often attempt to violate duly enacted federal gun laws and impede their enforcement. States and local municipalities do not have the authority to nullify federal gun laws they don’t agree with.

As the SPLC reluctantly admits, there is no standard Second Amendment Sanctuary language, which completely undercuts their theory that the movement is being directed from national gun rights groups. If that were the case, you wouldn’t see the type of local variations in 2A sanctuary resolutions and state legislation. It’s true that some state-level Second Amendment Sanctuary bills attempt to nullify any new federal gun control laws, but most of the proposals simply state that no local or state law enforcement should help enforce any new laws restricting the right to keep and bear arms.

As for the idea that state and local law enforcement are required to carry out state laws, that lie is easily refuted. Look at the number of cities, like Baltimore, that have declared they will no longer enforce drug possession, prostitution, and a host of other “low-level” offenses. Police and prosecutors have discretion in which laws they want to enforce and when they’ll enforce them. Last fall, dozens of local prosecutors and state Attorneys General declared that they wouldn’t enforce any new anti-abortion laws if Roe v. Wade was overturned, and in Virginia, several prosecutors have said they won’t enforce the laws against marijuana possession, even though it remains illegal under state law.

Some Second Amendment Sanctuary measures are on more solid legal ground than others, but the idea that the movement is part of some anti-government plot by violent extremists is utterly absurd. The Southern Poverty Law Center knows this, I’m sure, but the truth is apparently less important than the fundraising opportunities created by their gross mischaracterization of what the movement is all about.

Apr 09, 2021 5:00 PM ET