Adorned in military-pattern camouflage from head to toe, David Johnson stood in front of a packed courthouse in Letcher County this week and proclaimed his support for a local resolution to designate Letcher County a “2nd Amendment Sanctuary.”
The crowd roared in support as Johnson ended his speech, as it did for every other speaker who warned of a perceived impending threat: the federal and state governments’ incursion on gun rights.
Letcher County is one of the latest Kentucky counties to pass such a resolution. It joined about half a dozen others, including Harlan, Leslie and Cumberland counties. Dozens of others have meetings or votes scheduled to consider making their counties Second Amendment “sanctuaries.”
“Tonight, I feel that we the people of Letcher County, and not just Letcher County but the state of Kentucky, and not just the state of Kentucky but of these United States of America, can stand up as law-abiding citizens and proclaim that we are constitutional to the bitter end,” Johnson said to the crowd.
The resolutions have picked up significant steam in recent weeks. Multiple advocacy groups on Facebook have attracted thousands of followers. One group, Kentucky United, has garnered more than 70,000 members since its founding Dec. 10, and has spurred several local offshoots.
Letcher County’s resolution mirrors those seen elsewhere in the state. It expresses the “intent to uphold the Second Amendment rights of the citizens,” and “expresses its intent that public funds of the county not be used to restrict the Second Amendment rights of the citizens of Letcher County, or to aid federal or state agencies in the restriction of said rights.”
Johnson and several others in Whitesburg expressed support for the resolution as a practical defense against possible federal or state legislation that could limit access to or possession of certain firearms, ammunition or gun accessories. Johnson also warned against a potential Red Flag Law — legislation that would allow certain people, such as family members or police officers, to ask a judge to order the removal of an individual’s firearms if the person is deemed a threat to himself or others.
Asked whether the resolution could act as an actual legal defense against federal or state gun laws, Letcher County Judge-Executive Terry Adams, a Republican, said he believed the resolution could have some practical impact. Mostly, though, it serves to warn federal and state politicians of the political blowback that could result from supporting gun control legislation, he said.
“I hope this sends a message to our folks in Frankfort and our folks in Washington that we will not stand by and let our rights be taken away,” Adams said.
Resolutions like the one approved in Letcher County do not carry the full force of law. In municipalities, resolutions are “merely declaratory of the will or opinion of a municipal corporation,” whereas “ordinances” are enforceable pieces of legislation, according to Kentucky Municipal Statutory Law.
Officials in Marshall County, where a 15-year-old gunman killed two students and wounded a dozen others last year, have made attempts to create an enforceable county ordinance to prevent local police and sheriff’s deputies from enforcing certain gun laws, though the county attorney there has warned the effort would likely violate state law and attract a lawsuit.
Even without a resolution, local officials, such as sheriffs, can already decline to use their resources to enforce federal laws, including new gun regulations, according to Joshua Douglas, a constitutional law professor at the University of Kentucky.
That power has allowed cities throughout the country to decline to use their local police resources to assist with federal immigration enforcement cases.
Russell Weaver, a constitutional law professor at the University of Louisville, said not cooperating with federal enforcement efforts could prompt the federal or state government to withhold federal funding from those localities. The administration of President Donald Trump, for example, has successfully withheld federal funding from some local governments that declined to assist federal immigration enforcement officials.
The real power of these resolutions will be political, and can be seen in the unusually large crowds that show up at county courthouses to lend their support, said U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who represents Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District.
In Lewis County, more than 200 people showed up in Vanceburg for the reading of the Second Amendment resolution earlier this week.
“That just never happens,” Massie said. “Even if you do call them symbolic, they are consequential politically. I think it will give politicians pause when they see these kinds of numbers and this level of organization.”
A Response to Red Flag Laws
The most pressing piece of gun legislation in Kentucky, according to several supporters of the Second Amendment resolutions, is a proposed Red Flag law, or Extreme Protection Order. The bill has yet to be filed but has received bipartisan support among some state legislators.
The law would allow a judge to order that an individual’s firearms be taken away if the individual is deemed dangerous to himself or others. Advocates say the law could prevent suicides, domestic violence and mass shootings, while critics warn it could infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Red Flag laws are already in place in 17 states, said Kentucky Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, who is working to draft the bill for the upcoming legislative session.
During a November hearing, McGarvey said the bill would be designed with safeguards to avoid infringing on people’s rights to own firearms.
The bill, once it is written, will only give certain individuals the right to petition that someone’s firearms be temporarily removed, he said. Law enforcement, and potentially “very close family members,” could make the petitions to a court.
The court must then rule whether the petition has merit. After an order is issued, the court will hold a hearing for each individual case.
McGarvey described the orders as “a temporary timeout.” A person could regain their right to own firearms after receiving rehabilitation, such as suicide prevention treatment, he said.
“We are looking at the bill to make sure that it protects people, that it protects people from harm, but it also protects people’s rights,” McGarvey said.
Still, many proponents of Second Amendment resolutions are skeptical that adequate protections would be put in place.
“Red Flag is probably one of the most concerning pieces (of legislation), and I’ve looked at what they’ve done in some other states,” said Roger Ford, a Pikeville businessman who has pushed for Second Amendment resolutions. “I’ve got a problem with the due process, or lack thereof.”
Massie said he expects state lawmakers who support the Red Flag proposal, a concept that Gov. Andy Beshear supported during his campaign, to receive “a lot of pushback.”
Well-meaning lawmakers may attempt to write a bill that prevents violence while protecting Second Amendment rights, but “it could be that they set out to do something that’s not doable,” Massie said.
Not all local politicians have been so quick to throw their full, unquestioning support behind the resolutions.
In Lee County, where the fiscal court will hold a meeting to read its resolution Friday, Judge-Executive Charles Caudill, a Republican, called the resolutions “great political theater,” but cautioned local officials that the resolutions “should never advocate for breaking the law.”
“It’s important for us at the local level to follow the law as meticulously as we can,” Caudill said. “There has to be a common set of rules we all follow. So if we don’t like a law, let’s change the law, not fight it or try to ignore it.”
This article was originally published by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.