NRA helps sheriffs fight gun laws in Second Amendment 'sanctuaries'

Nick Penzenstadler

In a rural pocket of New Mexico, Sheriff Ian Fletcher fights back against new state firearm laws he calls unconstitutional, decrying “out-of-state gun control groups” in a column the Catron Courier newspaper published this spring. 

“These measures make it harder for law-abiding New Mexicans to exercise their Second Amendment rights, waste scarce law enforcement resources, and do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals,” the column says. 

Fletcher’s missive is part of a campaign among representatives of at least 75 cities and counties nationwide that call themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, opposing enforcement of gun background checks and emergency protection orders. 

The only problem: Fletcher didn’t write the column; a lobbyist with the National Rifle Association did. 

Fletcher says the letter was passed to him by a sheriffs' association and he’s not “the NRA’s puppet.”  

“I didn’t have any direct contact with the NRA, but the letter was probably a little more articulate than I might have been,” says Fletcher, who is depicted with an AR-15 on the county's official website. “It wasn’t a cut-and-paste job. I read it and agreed.” 

The nation’s firearm debate is playing out in these rural counties, where sheriffs hold broad policing authority, as well as in Denver’s suburbs, where a Republican sheriff faces recall for backing gun control laws. 

Ian Fletcher, Sheriff, Catron County, New Mexico.

On one side are groups such as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which exposed the NRA-written columns Monday, and the Giffords Law Center, which released an analysis of the firearm suicide rates in Second Amendment sanctuaries. On the other are gun rights groups, such as  those that organized a protest against the laws at Colorado’s Capitol on Saturday that drew hundreds waving “Don’t tread on me” flags and signs that read, “We the people will not give up our guns.” 

Colorado passed a “red flag law” this month, becoming the 15th state in addition to Washington, D.C., to do so. Similar legislation is pending in 20 other states.  

The laws allow family, roommates or law enforcement to petition a court for a temporary order to seize firearms from those deemed to pose a significant danger to themselves or others. An emergency 14-day order can be issued for imminent risk, and a yearlong prohibition of firearm possession can be ordered.

A "red flag" proposal failed in New Mexico.  

Brady staff suspected the NRA backed sheriffs' opposition to the laws and requested thousands of internal emails using public records laws.  

Kris Brown, the Brady Center's president, says the NRA and sheriffs' associations were “tied at the hip, going so far as to let the gun lobby essentially run the sheriffs' campaign against these laws in secret.”  

Generally, newspaper editors attempt to verify the provenance of letters to ensure their accuracy before publication. The Courier’s editor says she wasn’t surprised to learn Fletcher’s column was written by the gun rights group. 

“It doesn’t really matter because he agrees with those sentiments,” Shannon Donnelly says. “Because it’s in our opinion section, I don’t have a problem with him having it ghostwritten.”  

The Deming Headlight, a USA TODAY Network property, which ran an identical piece by Luna County Sheriff Kelly Gannaway, added an editor's note after learning that the column was written by the NRA and encouraged guest writers to submit original content.

NRA officials defended sending around the sample letters to the editor. 

“This is a distraction being pitched to reporters by the Michael Bloomberg-financed gun control lobby in response to the public’s strong opposition to their extreme gun control measures,” said Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokeswoman. “They are trying to draw attention away from the fact that the New York-style gun control they are pushing on New Mexicans will make law-abiding citizens less safe and won’t do anything to deter criminals.” 

Report ties opposition to suicide rates 

Opposition to new laws comes from counties with some of the highest firearm suicide rates in the nation, according to a report by the Giffords center, a gun violence prevention group named for former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured during a mass shooting in Arizona in 2011. 

The analysis focused on counties in Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington that directed their sheriffs to ignore new state laws if they deemed them unconstitutional. County resolutions include references to “tyrants throughout history” and say there is no “persuasive evidence that ‘gun control’ laws actually reduce crime.” 

“There’s irony that the folks most resistant to these lifesaving laws are in areas where constituents are at the highest risk,” says Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords center.  

The report points to places such as Custer County, Colorado, where the firearm suicide rate is 32 per 100,000 – four times the state’s average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In February, the county’s board of commissioners passed a resolution that says the state’s red flag law is “in direct conflict with provisions of due process, as outlined in the 4th Amendment, and contradict the right to bear arms.” 

Firearms account for more than half the state’s suicides, according to the Colorado Health Institute. 

Colorado’s law kicked off a wave of resolutions and recall efforts against legislators and sheriffs supporting it. A state gun rights group challenged the law in court. 

 Among those facing gun rights advocates' ire are Tom Sullivan, a Democratic lawmaker who backed the state’s red flag law, and Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican who supported it.  

The debate is intensely personal at times. Sullivan’s son, Alex, was killed in a shooting at a theater in Aurora in 2012, and Spurlock’s deputy Zack Parrish was killed in a shooting in 2017, responding to a man with long-standing mental health problems. The Colorado law is named after him. 

In statements to USA TODAY, Sullivan vowed to fight the recall and said he “won’t be bullied by the gun lobby,” and Spurlock said the effort would fail because “the Douglas County citizens support him wholeheartedly.” 

Robert Wareham, an attorney in Spurlock’s county, leads the recall effort against the sheriff. He says the law authorizes the seizure of firearms through no-knock warrants, which could be abused by spiteful family members. He disagrees that the law could prevent suicides. 

“People are going to commit suicide whether they have a gun or another method,” Wareham says. “The suicide problem in Douglas County is tough, with affluent, educated white men taking their lives –but that’s a mental health issue, and the firearm just expediates a method. Taking guns away won’t solve this.” 

Research over decades indicates firearms are the most lethal means of suicide nationwide and the best target for new policy, says Matt Miller, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University. 

“The hypothesis that if guns aren’t available, someone will find an equally lethal way to take their life seems reasonable, but it falls flat when you look at the data,” Miller says. 

In homes where there is at least one gun, the risk for suicide is three to four times greater than in homes where there are no firearms, Miller says.  

“Gun owners aren’t more suicidal and don’t have higher rates of mental illness or suicide attempts,” he says, “but they have much higher rates of death if they do attempt.” 

Legal fight, jail on horizon

Evan Todd, who survived the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, speaks during the Rally for our Rights: Take back the Second demonstration at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colo., on May 18, 2019.

Naming counties “sanctuaries” is a reference to sheriffs in left-leaning counties who resisted enforcement of federal immigration policy. The firearm laws come from state statutes. 

Attorneys general in Washington, New Mexico and Colorado  signaled that sheriffs who refuse to enforce the state law will encounter legal headaches. 

In Washington, Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a sternly worded letter that individual chiefs, sheriffs and towns could be held liable if someone illegally obtained a gun and used it to do harm. 

In Colorado, newly elected Attorney General Phil Weiser says sheriffs unwilling to enforce the law should resign. 

“People get into law enforcement with a commitment to serve and save lives, and I predict once this moves from the abstract to concrete cases with real people, it’s going to look a lot different to them,” Weiser says.

You elected them to write new laws. They’re letting corporations do it instead.

In Weld County, the opposition from Sheriff Steve Reams stems more from the search-and-seizure provisions in the state’s law and less from broader Second Amendment concerns. He says the law threatens the wide discretionary berth afforded to law enforcement to prioritize laws, something he can sidestep by opting not to have any of his deputies ever petition for a red flag order. 

“There’s no other order where we’re to go out and confiscate firearms with a search warrant,” Reams says. “And at that first issuance, the defendant isn’t there to defend themselves in court – it’s an entirely new body of law, and it’s troublesome.” 

In addition to passively ignoring the law, he says, he’s prepared to fight the law either in court or from a jail cell. 

“If a judge said go confiscate these guns and that person wasn’t afforded due process, I could not abide,” he says. “And if a judge ordered me to jail for violating the order, that’s the punishment I’d be willing to face.” 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NRA helps sheriffs fight gun laws in Second Amendment 'sanctuaries'