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The rising threat of ‘gun sanctuaries’

A few New England towns have joined the misguided Second Amendment sanctuary movement. It’s dangerous.

More than 1,000 residents attended a Nelson County Board of Supervisors meeting in Lynchburg, Va., addressing a resolution to make the county a Second Amendment sanctuary in December. The board approved the resolution.Emily Elconin/Associated Press

When Shane Cox started manufacturing and selling unregistered short-barrel rifles and silencers in his Chanute, Kan., gun store roughly six years ago, he believed that the state’s new Second Amendment Protection Act shielded him from federal prosecution. So did his customer Jeremy Kettler, a veteran who bought one of Cox’s “Made in Kansas” suppressors. Kettler was so excited that he posted a video about the purchase on Facebook.

You’ve probably guessed what happened next: Cox and Kettler were soon convicted for federal gun violations. It is illegal to make and sell unregistered firearms and their accessories under federal law, and states can’t legally nullify national laws they don’t like. And yet, in 2013, Kansas legislators passed a law declaring that any federal gun-control laws did not apply to firearms, accessories, and ammunition manufactured and kept within the borders of the deeply red state. Cox even gave copies of that state law to his customers. Kettler later said he bought the unregistered silencer “because of a piece of paper signed by the governor saying it was legal.” He lambasted his state government for “setting up its citizens to be prosecuted by the United States of America.”


The nationwide rise of so-called Second Amendment sanctuary jurisdictions, where local governments pass ordinances vowing not to enforce state or federal gun-control laws, has quickened since then. More than 400 municipalities in 20 states, including at least one city in Maine, and a few in Vermont and Rhode Island, have declared themselves such sanctuaries. In Virginia — where a recent pro-gun rally drew thousands of Second Amendment advocates and fully armed militia to protest a strict new state gun law — more than 120 cities, towns, and counties enacted similar resolutions in a two-month period.

These ordinances, whose exact details vary widely from place to place, are by and large legally meaningless. Still, their growing numbers are a troubling development. These votes have the potential to confuse residents about their rights, deter those threatened by guns from using legal protections, and set up gun owners and local authorities for legal trouble.


With these resolutions, local elected officials say they will refuse to enforce gun laws they feel are unconstitutional, such as the so-called red flag or “extreme risk” regulations that 17 states have passed, which let family members or law enforcement ask a judge to temporarily remove guns from someone who seems to be a risk to themselves or others.

Of course, local officials can’t make constitutional determinations, and the Supreme Court — which can — has established that the right afforded by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. In 2008, the Supreme Court took its last major gun case, where Justice Antonin Scalia, in the majority opinion, wrote that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Members of the Silent Brigade stand in formation outside a gun-right rally at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, last month. Mike Morones/Associated Press

Gun safety advocates fear that Second Amendment sanctuary policies could have real-life consequences. For instance, a resident of one of those towns might not report a loved one in legal possession of a gun who may be at risk of committing suicide, homicide, or even a mass shooting if they feel that their local sheriff will not enforce a judge’s order to remove that person’s gun.


The gun sanctuary movement took its name from the trend among liberal jurisdictions to label themselves sanctuary cities where local police won’t cooperate with immigration authorities. But as those cities and states have found, there’s really no such thing as sanctuary from the federal government for immigrants, and indeed there can be severe consequences for local officials who try to skirt federal law. Liberal cities made a misleading promise to immigrants without legal status — which conservative jurisdictions now seem intent to imitate with their gun policies.

That cities and towns of all political stripes increasingly feel pressure from citizens to nullify state and federal laws is a symptom of political dysfunction and polarization. But it’s also a dangerous trend that risks actual harm. Proponents of Second Amendment sanctuary may think they’re standing on principle, but by sowing confusion they’re just putting their communities — including gun owners themselves — at risk.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.