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W.Va. sheriffs say they wouldn't enforce assault weapons ban

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Several West Virginia county sheriffs said they would defy any federal assault weapons ban proposed by President Obama.

Earlier this month, Obama unveiled 23 separate executive actions to curb what he called "the epidemic of gun violence in this country." Additionally, he urged Congrees to pass a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and asked for a universal background check requirement for all new gun purchases.

If that ban were to become federal law, at least five West Virginia sheriffs said they wouldn't enforce it and vowed to protect people's right to bear arms under their interpretation of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Putnam County Sheriff Steve Deweese was among those who said he doesn't support an assault weapons ban.

"If an executive order comes across to arrest someone in possession of an AK-47, my answer is probably no, because that's violating their Second Amendment rights," he said.

Boone County Sheriff Randall White said he took an oath to defend the Constitution and recently sent a letter to Obama addressing his concerns.

Roane County Sheriff Mike Harper and Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt have both signed a petition created by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association to be a "line in the sand" against the federal government.

"The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, 'Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.' This is not only within the scope of the sheriff's authority; it's the sheriff's sworn duty," according to the petition's mission statement.

The group is headed by former Arizona sheriff and Gun Owners of America lobbyist Richard Mack, and has been designated an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Merritt said he signed the petition last month because some of his family members have died at war to protect the Constitution. 

"[Obama] can make statements on a podium, but to me it's saying, 'You don't have the Constitution anymore and we didn't give it to you as a right in the first place,'" Merritt said.

Merritt said he didn't want to be labeled a radical and hasn't decided exactly how he would defy the assault weapons ban.

"I'd do everything I can so help me God," Merritt said. "I pray to never have to do something like that but I will use deadly force if I have to."

Kanawha County Sheriff Johnny Rutherford said he didn't want to address specific measures, but that his focus was on community safety.

"We're going to enforce the laws, whatever the laws are," Rutherford said. "I'm not going to get into the politics of it. Our job is to enforce the laws and make our community safe."

Rudi Raynes-Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs Association, said she's still researching what would happen if sheriffs defy federal laws.

The association plans to discuss the topic and decide whether to adopt a unified stance on the issue during a meeting next month, Raynes-Kidder said. Until then, it's up to each individual sheriff to decide what's best for his or her respective counties, she said.

In recent years, many police organizations and unions have supported tighter gun control laws.

The assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would make owning such weapons a federal crime. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin declined Wednesday to comment on the proposed ban and what it would mean for sheriffs who defy it.

In its most recent major decision on gun control, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a prohibition on owning handguns in the District of Columbia. But in writing the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged that the right to bear arms was not unlimited.

Several sheriffs said they supported at least expanding current gun control laws rather than an all-out ban.

Studying the effects of violent video games and TV shows should be in the forefront of the gun control issue, according to Deweese. Also, more attention should be placed on mental health problems. He also supports making it stricter to make purchases at gun shows and hiring more school protection officers.

"What concerns me the most is the gun shows people have at say an armory. For instance, there's no background checks for anybody. If I want to go to a gun show in Eleanor and buy a 22 long rifle, I can give them $300 and walk out with it," he said.

Deweese said the recent dash to purchase high-powered rifles since the gun control debate heightened doesn't make him nervous.

"The fact of it is people have the right to bear arms. For the most part, most of the houses we go to on a daily basis have at least one or two guns already in the house," Deweese said. "West Virginia is well known for that and has been for years. And, of course, I'm a firm believer in the castle doctrine -- people have the right to defend themselves, especially in their own house."

White, of Boone County, said it's one thing to make it harder for criminals to buy guns, but law-abiding citizens shouldn't be punished.            

"Background checks, that stuff is fine, that's not changing our constitution -- that's enhancing the laws, making it harder for a criminal to get a gun," White said.

Merritt said he supports Obama's proposal to ramp up law enforcement protection at schools. Several public schools in Wood County already have armed officers and he's meeting with a private school this week to place an officer there, he said.

Staff writer Rusty Marks contributed to this story. Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163. Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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