Garrett County Sheriff Robert Corley (Handout photo )
A growing revolt in rural counties against the state's new gun control law has spread to far Western Maryland, where the Garrett County sheriff declared the measure unconstitutional this week and said he would enforce only the provisions he believes are valid.
The declaration by Sheriff Rob Corley follows the adoption of resolutions by the governing bodies of Carroll and Cecil counties saying those jurisdictions will not use any county resources to enforce the Maryland Firearms Safety Act, passed by the General Assembly this year and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May.
Among other things, the law bans the sales of certain guns classified as assault weapons, limits the size of bullet-holding magazines and requires new handgun purchasers to be licensed and fingerprinted to deter illegal purchases.
Corley's statement is a full-throated assertion of gun owners' rights, declaring that the new state law "violates the Second Amendment to the Constitution" and the sheriff "will make every effort to protect our citizens' constitutional rights."
The statement uses language that is in many places identical to resolutions passed by the Cecil County Council and the Carroll County commissioners last month. The three statements use the same quotes from figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.
"What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" all three documents quote Jefferson as saying.
How much practical effect the resistance will have is uncertain. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said Wednesday that troopers would enforce the law throughout Maryland.
"It is a state law and it is applicable throughout the entire state," he said. "What local law enforcement officers choose to do is, I guess, their decision."
The three counties are dominated by conservative Republicans.
A drive to petition the new law to a referendum in 2014 failed last week, and the measure is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. The National Rifle Association has said it will file suit to block the statute, which includes provisions that already are law in other states. The Maryland attorney general's office has issued an opinion that it is constitutional.
In Garrett, Corley told the county commissioners Tuesday that his deputies would practice "discretionary enforcement" of the new law except in violent crimes and cases involving felons or those with a dangerous mental illness. He did not return a phone call asking him to elaborate.
Garrett County State's Attorney Lisa Thayer-Welch, who would make decisions about prosecuting cases, could not be reached for comment.
Corley, a Republican who was elected sheriff in 2010, asked the commissioners to pass a resolution similar to those in Carroll and Cecil. County administrator R. Lamont Pagenhardt said Wednesday that the three-member board decided to hold off on a formal resolution, but expressed general approval of the sheriff's position.
"All they're doing is supporting his discretion in doing his job to the best of his ability," Pagenhardt said. The administrator said that the commissioners decided to hear from citizens before taking any formal action.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, the Montgomery County Democrat who led the floor fight for passage of the gun bill, said local governments can't override state law.
"They can pass whatever they want, but it certainly doesn't have the weight of law," she said, predicting that the statute would withstand the expected court challenge by the NRA.
Dumais, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that the law puts the state police in charge of administering the licensing provisions, including the gathering of applicants' fingerprints.
"I don't know how a local sheriff is going to prevent that or turn a blind eye to that," she said.
Dumais noted that the General Assembly received assurance from the state attorney general's office that all of the provisions of the firearms safety act are constitutional. She said local governments should defer to that legal advice unless the courts overturn provisions of the law.
H. Scott Curtis, chief counsel to the attorney general's office of courts and judicial affairs, said sheriffs and state's attorneys have obligations to enforce state laws.
"They have to consider the oath that they took when they took office and that is an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Maryland and Maryland's laws," Curtis said.
Officials in the three counties assert in their statements that they are upholding their oaths by resisting the law. Curtis said it is clear where the final determination lies: the judicial branch of government.
"The court would be the last word on what is constitutional and what isn't," he said.