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Chowan rejects sanctuary status for gun owners

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By Miles Layton
Chowan Herald

Monday, September 16, 2019

EDENTON — Chowan commissioners have rejected adopting a resolution designating the county a “sanctuary” site for gun owners after the county attorney recommended against the idea, saying it could compromise Chowan’s ability to defend against lawsuits.

Commissioner Ron Cummings proposed the resolution, saying he felt it would protect the county’s gun owners from potential government overreach.

Cummings, a Republican, proposed the resolution in the wake of an executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in August to strengthen background checks for guy buyers, improve gun safety and prevent gun-related suicides in North Carolina.

Cooper’s directive, coming in the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, requires state agencies to take more action to close crime-reporting gaps between state and federal agencies, and expand firearm safety education.

In proposing Chowan adopt sanctuary status to protect gun owners, Cummings was suggesting the county do something similar to what a number of other communities across the county, including five rural counties in Illinois, have done in recent years to send a message to state legislatures that may be considering tougher gun-control measures.

The gun rights sanctuary resolutions essentially say the adopting government is a sanctuary from new gun-control measures, and that the government will bar its employees from enforcing the measures. The gun-rights sanctuary movement mirrors one by large cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries from enforcing federal immigration laws.

Cummings said he didn’t want Chowan ending up like Chicago, where he claimed highly restrictive gun ownership laws have taken a toll on public safety. Chicago has one of the highest gun-death rates in the nation.

“You don’t want to end up like Chicago where bad people have guns,” Cummings said. “Bad people with guns are killing a lot of people without them. You don’t see that on the news. That’s why I’m supporting this resolution to make Chowan County a sanctuary county.”

Commissioner Bob Kirby said he asked County Attorney Lauren Arizaga-Womble to research Cummings’ proposal.

“I am a fervent supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “However, I had some trouble with the language contained within this resolution, so I reached to the county attorney to get her take on this and what pitfalls this could bring upon us as a county or as a commission.”

Arizaga-Womble told commissioners that adopting sanctuary status, whether it be to protect gun rights or illegal immigrants, can expose a government to future liability.

“My biggest concern regarding a sanctuary status is that the county would be potentially waiving its claim of sovereign immunity,” she said.

Sovereign immunity is a longstanding legal doctrine that states a government cannot commit a legal wrong and therefore is immune from a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution.

“From a legal perspective, sanctuary is just another word for ‘We’re not going to uphold state or federal law,’ Arizaga-Womble said. “From a legal perspective, it doesn’t matter if it is for immigration or the Second Amendment or anything else. The fact that the county adopts a resolution that says ‘we’re not going to enforce state or federal law’ opens the county up for liability.”

She offered a hypothetical situation where Chowan County decided to designate itself as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. If an illegal immigrant then committed a crime, someone could sue Chowan, alleging the only reason the crime happened is because the county refused to enforce immigration laws.

“That means the county cannot say ‘No, no no, we’re claiming sovereign immunity because we’re a governmental entity — you can’t sue us,’” Arizaga-Womble said. “You wouldn’t be able to do that anymore if this law passes.”

She suggested the county would face the same problem — loss of sovereign immunity — if Chowan designated itself a sanctuary county for gun rights.

“You’re a breath away from saying if you’re a sanctuary city for the Second Amendment, and you don’t enforce some law that comes down from the state or federal government, then they are going to argue the same thing,” she said. “You can’t claim sovereign immunity if you are not going to follow the law.”

“You can’t claim ‘I’m not going to follow the law,’ but plead the law in your own defense,” she continued. “That gives me great concern that if something were to happen, that we would be opening ourselves up to that liability.”

Arizaga-Womble also said Cummings’ proposed resolution wasn’t clear about whether there should be any restrictions on the Second Amendment. She noted that it is illegal for convicted felons to possess a firearm. However, there are a number of convicted felons who believe that prohibition is an “unreasonable restriction” on their Second Amendment rights.

“So the question is, how are we to determine where that ball stops, where that slope stops? Who makes that determination? How do we prosecute that or not prosecute it? Or enforce it?” she asked. “So from a legal perspective, this can be a sticky area.”

Cummings asked Arizaga-Womble what other options the county had to protect Chowan residents’ constitutionally protected gun rights.

“If you have government officials out there trying to restrict our constitution and our Bill of Rights — that’s why the Bill of Rights was put together to begin with: to protect us against a government that is taking freedoms away from us. If that is the legal standpoint, how do we protect ourselves?” he asked.

Arizaga-Womble said citizens can always use the political process to change leaders, who then can change laws. But ignoring current law puts the county at risk of liability, she said.

Cummings didn’t seem satisfied with that option.

“When you have a governor who is putting out executive orders for gun rights — removing some of those rights — how do you fight that when he’s already in office?” he asked.

Arizaga-Womble again pointed to the political process.

“The state’s attorney general is who is supposed to fight that. We vote for that person as well,” she said. “If the attorney general is not acting in response, then there is a remedy for that, be it a longer-term remedy — a more frustrating remedy, I understand — but it is the remedy that is in place.”

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