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Mendocino County sheriff weighs in on gun debate

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 3:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 3:55 p.m.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman — already at odds with the federal government over the county's pot permit program — is adding his voice to a chorus of rural sheriffs who are refusing to enforce any new gun control measures they deem to be unconstitutional.

Many of the lawmen and women hailing from small towns from Alabama to Oregon wrote letters this week to Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress, decrying what they see as an attack on gun rights by the Obama administration.

Allman is still crafting his letter, which he expects to send next week. Some of his peers, like Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, called elected officials “despicable” for using recent mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado to further what they consider misguided political agendas.

Others, like Sheriff Gil Gilbertson in Josephine County, Ore., said they would refuse to give in to “big brother” by ignoring unlawful restrictions and blocking enforcement by federal officers.

Allman said he won't indulge in similar chest-thumping because he doesn't want to fan the flames of an already contentious debate. But he said he would express his “deep respect” for the right to bear arms in a county that likes its guns. And he said he couldn't envision a scenario where he would comply with orders to seize weapons.

“I certainly will defend the Second Amendment,” Allman said. “But I'm not going to sit here and puff up my chest.”

The campaign is organized by the Texas-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association, which Allman joined about a year ago. He attended its annual conference last year in Las Vegas.

The group, founded by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, has vowed to do whatever it can to protect the rights of gun owners in small counties.

It advocates states' rights and stresses that county sheriffs are the last line of defense against attacks on the Constitution.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2011 classified the organization as an anti-government “Patriot” group.

Its members are sheriffs and police chiefs from mostly southern and western states, including more than a dozen California sheriffs. On the North Coast, Sheriff Mike Downey from Humboldt County and Sheriff Dean Wilson from Del Norte County were included in an online membership list.

Mack, who once ran for Congress, said members are concerned that President Barack Obama will enact unfair gun control legislation that will punish law-abiding citizens.

He has asked sheriffs nationwide to write letters to Obama and other federal officials, announcing their opposition.

“We're putting them on notice that it's not going to happen here,” Mack said in an interview this week. “And don't expect us to go along with this or allow it to go on in our counties.”

Mack said opinions were mixed on specific gun control proposals. Many support universal background checks and mental health screening as a requirement for gun ownership, he said.

Mack opposes an assault rifle ban but others don't.

Mack said he didn't tell sheriffs what to say in their letters. He expected Allman to write because “it's just the Sheriff Allman thing to do.”

Allman said his tone would be different.

“Just because I'm a member of an organization doesn't mean I believe everything they say,” Allman said.

Like some other sheriffs, he said he would call for background checks and mental health screening. But he was vague on what else he would write. He couldn't say if he thought Obama was overstepping with his proposals.

However, he said he was generally opposed to efforts by the federal government to “micro-manage what we do.” Asked if he would seize guns if he were told to do so, he said, “We're not going to do it.”

Last year, Mendocino County gun stores sold 4,249 pistols, shotguns and rifles. As of December, more than 1,200 residents had permits to carry concealed weapons.

By comparison, Sonoma County gun stores sold 9,965 firearms. Residents had just 77 permits.

Allman said guns are a popular choice for self-protection in Mendocino County, where it can take more than an hour for police to arrive to emergencies.

“I have no doubt that some improvement can be made with some gun laws,” he said. “But in Mendocino County, we're very supportive of the Second Amendment. Let's not let emotions drive the conversation.”

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