The county commissioners and Sheriff Duane Burgess stopped short of declaring Johnson County a Second Amendment sanctuary, but declared that county resources would not be used to enforce laws that infringe on gun rights.
Burgess was asked by residents to clarify his stance on the issue, so he put his thoughts to paper in a legal document as a promise to county residents, he said.
“The people have rights and must be protected, and people must know where their elected sheriff and officials stand," Burgess said. "People have the right to protect themselves and their property. They have the right to keep and bear arms.”
Locally, the ordinance declares, “Johnson County shall be a county in which the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms is deeply honored and protected against unlawful infringement; and that the Johnson County Commissioners and Johnson County Sheriff hereby declare their opposition to any law or regulation that unlawfully infringes upon the right to keep and bear arms, and it shall, therefore, be the policy of the Johnson County commissioners and the Johnson County sheriff not to utilize county resources in a manner that unlawfully infringes upon the right to keep and bear arms.”
The 2013 ordinance did not include a pledge from the sheriff to not enforce laws that infringe on gun rights such as a mass gun seizure, instead saying the commissioners would oppose rights infringements they believe are contrary to the constitution. The new resolution cements the county’s commitment further, with Burgess’s declaration that any such laws would not be enforced.
Burgess and Johnson County commissioner Brian Baird said county officials are of the opinion that additional gun rights should not be taken away, but existing gun laws will continue to be enforced. For example, Baird said the sheriff’s office would respond to and take action against individuals who possess illegal guns such as automatic weapons or those who carry a gun in public without a license.
The most likely way this resolution could be put into action is some type of mass guns seizure, Burgess said. He and Baird said the county feels strongly that any weapon seizure should not be undertaken without modifying the constitution.
As sheriff, Burgess knows that many gun laws are necessary, for example, the Jake Laird Law, also known as the Red Flag Law, which allows law enforcement to take guns from someone who is mentally unstable or poses a potential threat to society. For him, the distinction between laws such as this and a mass seizure is that the latter would impact law-abiding citizens. Rather than any specific potential legislation, the resolution is meant to protect law-abiding citizens from having guns taken from them unconstitutionally, Burgess said.
Legal experts doubt the validity of local resolutions promising to not enforce gun laws, given that municipalities are superseded by state and federal laws. Under the state constitution, counties operate exclusively on the powers that are endowed to the units of government by the General Assembly, according to a guide on county government from the Indiana Association of Counties. Experts say, because laws would either come via the executive or legislative branch, county government would be beholden to uphold the law.
However, is not clear what consequences there would be if a state or federal law passed and Burgess refused to enforce it, Baird said.
“Until something would come up, you don’t know what is going to happen; everybody knows that. I hope this is never tested,” Baird said. “I swore an oath to protect the constitution and I will do that until my last breath.”
In 2013, Johnson County became one of the first in the state to pass a Second Amendment protection ordinance. Since the first of this year, Burgess, Baird and Greg Ileko, a Bargersville man involved with the county’s Second Amendment protection group, have been working with legal counsel to update the ordinance and clarify the county’s stance.
Baird and Burgess have been discussing this new resolution, which the Johnson County Board of Commissioners passed unanimously, since Burgess took office last year, Baird said.
Passing the resolution moved up the priority list when the Second Amendment sanctuary movement ignited across the country after controversial gun laws were passed in Virginia, said Ilko.
Indiana’s Second Amendment sanctuary movement is led by a group called Indiana 2a United. The group’s members have convinced 25 counties to pass some type of 2a protection measure, according to pro-2a sanctuary website, sanctuarycounties.com. As many as 959 counties across the country have passed similar measures with encouragement from local gun rights activists, the website says.
Not all counties that have had Second Amendment protection measures proposed have passed legislation. For example, Bartholomew County commissioners and the Columbus mayor declined to pass proposed sanctuary legislation in January.
Bartholomew County officials saw sanctuary legislation as an attempt to bypass the court system, according to a statement they provided to the Columbus Republic.
“The question of whether the Constitution has been followed is within the sole province of the Courts to determine. It appears that the intent and purpose of this proposed Ordinance is to attempt to usurp or supersede the authority of the Courts,” the statement read.
For activists like Ilko, a commitment from the county government to protect gun rights means a lot at a time when many fear further infringement, he said. Though a resolution has a less powerful statement than an ordinance, Ilko said the gesture is important to local gun owners. An ordinance is a piece of legislation that carries more weight, whereas a resolution is a formally expressed opinion that is agreed upon with a vote.
“It is the opportunity for the silent majority to not be silent anymore. There is a big push and an anti-2a facet out there,” Ilko said. “Having our sheriff and public officials stand up takes some moxy and I appreciate it.”
On gun rights or any issue, Burgess said his door is always open when residents have concerns about law enforcement issues.
“As the sheriff of Johnson County, I feel that it is important to be proactive and look at all sides when making a decision,” Burgess said. “We all may not agree on certain things or issues, but at the end of the day, you have to be willing to accept that person’s view and continue to work toward a solution.”