Sheriffs swear an oath to uphold the entire Constitution, not just the parts they like | Editorial
By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board
Jan 21, 2020 | 11:45 AM
At a recent meeting of a gun rights group, Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma was asked during a Q&A whether he would enforce an assault weapons ban.
Specifically, he was asked about a proposed constitutional amendment’s provision that would allow people who currently own such weapons to keep them, but only if they registered the firearm.
“It’s not only that I wouldn’t, the majority of sheriffs across the state would not do it,” the sheriff responded. In other words, he would not uphold his oath to the state constitution. The crowd ate it up.
Lemma has since elaborated on his comments to the Sentinel, saying that if the amendment passed his office wouldn’t go looking for people who had failed to register their weapons. But if deputies encountered an unregistered assault weapon through, say, serving a search warrant as part of a drug investigation, they would uphold the law.
Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma told gun activists he wouldn’t enforce a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would require owners of semiautomatic weapons to register them with the state.
Good to hear. But let’s remember Lemma said there are lots more Florida sheriffs who wouldn’t enforce constitutionally mandated gun registration, should it come to pass.
If not, they wouldn’t be the first. Sheriffs across the country are breaking their oaths and refusing to uphold laws they’ve decided are unconstitutional restrictions on gun ownership.
In Colorado, some sheriffs suggested they wouldn’t enforce “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to get a court order to seize weapons from someone believed to pose a danger to themselves or others.
Sheriffs in Oregon declared they wouldn’t enforce any new federal gun laws that infringe on Second Amendment rights. One sheriff went a step further, saying he wouldn’t tolerate the feds enforcing such laws within his jurisdiction.
A few years ago the sheriff of Liberty County was accused of freeing a man one of his deputies had arrested for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. The sheriff was charged with trying to cover it up by altering jail logs — all in the name of protecting the suspect’s gun rights. The sheriff was acquitted. (Postscript: The man he freed was arrested and charged with using a gun to commit second-degree murder.)
Similarly, hundreds of cities and counties across the nation have declared their intent to defy gun laws they don’t like, presumably based on their own constitutional interpretations.
Last fall Lake County’s commission — with the support of Lake Sheriff Peyton Grinnell — voted unanimously to become one of hundreds of local governments to declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” The county’s resolution is a series of declarations about firearm freedoms and says sheriffs are the “last protector of the U.S. Constitution.”
The practical effect of the resolution is vague, and possibly meaningless, but it continues a pattern of local officials asserting they are not subject to certain laws that, in their judgment, don’t comport with the federal or state constitutions’ guarantees of the right to bear arms.
That’s not how it works.
We’re a nation of laws. Some we like. Others we don’t. People who swear an oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions — we’re looking at you, sheriffs — don’t get to pick and choose as if these documents were a restaurant menu.
Constitutional rights are not absolute. Threats to kill someone aren’t protected under free speech. Polygamy isn’t protected under freedom of religion. Unpermitted rallies and marches aren’t protected under freedom of assembly.
If sheriffs feel aggrieved by new gun laws, they can try to find relief through the courts, which have ruled numerous times in favor of gun rights.
Lemma’s comments surprised us because he’s become a respected figure in Central Florida, in part by helping lead the community’s fight against the opioid plague. He’s not another flame-throwing sheriff (which are plentiful in Florida).
We suspect Lemma was playing to the crowd with his comment about not enforcing registration, though the sheriff noted that attendees were less enthusiastic about his advocacy for Florida’s "red flag” law.
That’s politics, we suppose. But with law enforcers more openly questioning their willingness to enforce gun regulations, it’s important for leaders like Lemma to clearly convey that the law matters, even those we might not like.
Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Shannon Green, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.