Legal opinions raise doubt over “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY – On Monday, officials in Jeff Davis County considered a resolution to make the gun-friendly county a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” It would have been the third Texas county to declare that its law enforcement won’t enforce gun laws it deems unconstitutional, after Presidio County did so in July.

But a legal opinion persuaded the county’s Commissioners Court to kill voting on the measure, raising fresh doubts about the “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement that has swept the country this year.

James Allison, general counsel for the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, told the Commissioners Court in a written opinion Thursday that “Texas counties have no authority to create a ‘sanctuary’ for or against weapons.”

Any such measure would be simply an “opinion,” he said, and “should be carefully drafted to avoid implying any legal effect.”

That didn’t sit well with the commissioners. Even Curtis Evans, who added the measure to the agenda after he said constituents requested it, started having second thoughts.

“I didn’t see any benefit for our county as far as what [the measure] will do for us,” he said in an interview with the Big Bend Sentinel. “Does it make us a better place? No.”

“As commissioners, we have an oath we take to uphold the Constitution,” he added.

Commissioner Todd Jagger requested the legal opinion after Evans first put the measure on the agenda last week. He worried it would create new problems for the county without creating any new policy protections for gun-owners — a concern he felt was confirmed by Allison.

“We already have a document that protects our Second Amendment rights,” Jagger told the Sentinel. “It’s called the United States Constitution.”

Teresa Todd, the county attorney, agreed with Allison’s legal opinion, saying Jeff Davis County did not have the “authority” to declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary.

She also feared the move would embolden “sovereign citizens” who question where any laws (and not just gun laws) apply to them. In 1997, Jeff Davis County was the site of a week-long standoff between Texas Rangers and an armed group calling itself “Republic of Texas.” At least one of the group members was fatally shot by authorities.

“Nobody believes in gun rights quite as much as Jeff Davis County,” Todd said. “But none of those other counties have had an anti-government stand-off, with blood in the streets.”

One irony: The use of the word “sanctuary” appears to be a nod to “sanctuary cities,” the term for local governments that have vowed not to fully cooperate with immigration authorities. But in Jeff Davis County, that wording — and the controversies surrounding it — helped to kill the measure.

“The word ‘sanctuary’ does not need to be used,” Todd said, describing it as a “hot-button word” that “can cost your county money.”

In July, Presidio County was the first Texas county to declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary. Rod Ponton, county attorney, confirmed he had received a very similar, if not identical, opinion.

Presidio County did end up changing some wording in the measure, striking language that made promises about funding, as well as another controversial paragraph alleging that “criminals will always possess firearms.” In the end, though, Ponton said he was fine with the final resolution, which he considers “just a statement” affirming that his constituents “are proud of gun ownership.”

“We’ll follow federal and state laws,” he added.

Jeff Davis considered an identical resolution. But after discussions on Monday, Jeff Davis commissioners decided they could reaffirm their support for gun rights without a document that Todd dismissed as “some boilerplate thing that’s badly written.”

Instead, Jagger wrote and proposed a similar measure that he felt more accurately captured the tender relationship Jeff Davis County has with guns. It describes “the responsible use of firearms” as “an important part of our history” and a heritage “passed from generation to generation.” It also describes the 1997 standoff as “a tragic example of what anti-government sentiments and inciting rhetoric combined with weapons in the wrong hands can lead to.”

“It’s a beautiful document,” Todd said. “Really lovely.”

Evans agreed. “I like everything about it,” he said. “It’s pro-Constitution.”

Jagger’s resolution is not yet on the agenda but could see a vote next month. Regardless of what happens, gun owners in Jeff Davis County need not worry just yet. Texas offers broad rights to gun owners, and every Jeff Davis official interview reaffirmed their enthusiasm for firearms.

“When I say I use guns on a regular basis, I’m not lying,” Jagger said in a follow-up phone interview on Tuesday. “I shot a feral hog this morning.”