A Second Amendment Sanctuary movement has caught fire across America and in Union County, Pennsylvania, fueled by gun owners wanting to pre-emptively protect their rights in the face of any future state legislature passing unconstitutional gun restriction laws.
The first Second Amendment Sanctuary Ordinance (SASO) anywhere in the United States was passed this past Monday in Buffalo Township, Union County.
Hundreds of other Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions already exist around the country. Resolutions are statements. Buffalo Township is the first Ordinance, said Val Finnell, Pennsylvania director, Gun Owners of America. The GOA has been behind the push for Second Amendment Sanctuaries in Virginia, and now Pennsylvania.
The Buffalo Township ordinance says "local governments have the legal authority to refuse to cooperate with state and federal firearm laws" that violate Second Amendment rights, "and to proclaim a Second Amendment Sanctuary for law-abiding citizens in their cities and counties."
"We wanted to start the ball rolling on a movement that we hope others in this county will take notice of," said Township Chairman Joseph Wise, when the idea for the ordinance was first presented to supervisors by New Columbia resident Shawn Waltman.
Waltman's plan has been to create Second Amendment sanctuaries "in every municipality in Union County and then to Union County commissioners. The idea is to have a county-wide ordinance."
On Monday, either Waltman or one of his two colleagues, Will Baylor and Scott Henninger, will be at the East Buffalo Township and West Buffalo Township meetings.
"We'll present supervisors with an actual ordinance they can use and then tailor to their municipality," he said. "We explain what we are doing and why and simply ask for their support."
So far, Waltman said, he has approached seven municipalities with six, including Lewisburg Borough, to go in the next few weeks.
He hopes to make a presentation before Union County commissioners, sometime in March.
Union County Commissioner Stacy Richards said on Thursday, she didn't know much about the Second Amendment Sanctuary Ordinance movement, but expected commissioners to "listen to what they have to say, and what residents have to say about it."
Only two Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions in Pennsylvania were passed in Bradford (Resolution 2019-20) and Huntingdon (Resolution 2-2020, signed Jan. 14) counties. "But they are non-binding resolutions," Waltman noted.
In both resolutions, Bradford and Huntingdon commissioners expressed "opposition to any law that is found un-Constitutional under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
The key language in the Bradford County resolution, which Waltman hopes to use in Union County, is "local governments have the legal authority to refuse to cooperate with state and federal firearm laws ... and proclaim a Second Amendment Sanctuary for law-abiding citizens."
Waltman said he got the idea when going to the Gun Owners of America website.
"They are starting across the country, Second Amendment Sanctuaries," he said. "In Virginia, where the governor is trying to enact restrictive gun laws, several counties have passed Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolutions.
"What an ordinance would do is protect gun owners' rights from future attempts to restrict ownership," Waltman said, "although the Second Amendment is supposed to. The ordinance would say, in effect, that the governing body would not use any of their resources, personnel to enforce those unconstitutional laws.
"That's what we're trying to do in Union County," he continued. "Protect our rights."
But Christian Soltysiak, executive director, CeasefirePa, from Philadelphia, said "such an ordinance would be putting residents at risk of gun violence." She declined further comment until she knew more about the proposed ordinances.
Origins of the movement
The Second Amendment Sanctuary movement first gained momentum out west with the passage of Red Flag laws, said Finnell of GOA.
The first U.S. county to officially enact a Second Amendment Sanctuary Resolution was Effingham County, Illinois, in 2018.
Red Flag, or gun confiscation orders, Finnell explained, are where someone can go to a judge and file a complaint that a person is a danger to himself or to others.
"That hearing is ex parte," he said, "which means you have no right to confront your accuser. It could be an angry ex, or somebody who doesn't like you and then the judge makes a decision that your firearms can be confiscated. There is a knock on your door and the police come take your guns. Your guns are taken and you are faced with hiring an attorney to get them back. It could cost $10,000 in attorney's fees. This really turns due process on its head. It is a complete perversion of due process to have that type of law in place. You have to go back later to reclaim your firearms, to get your rights back. That's why we refer to them as Red Flag gun confiscation orders."
That is one of the main things that has gotten people upset, Finnell said. "This got the movement started because I know many of our sheriffs in Pennsylvania do not want to enforce those red flag laws. They rightfully believe they put citizens and law enforcement officers at risk. Out west it was the same way. Sheriffs did not want to enforce those laws."
When Red Flag laws were passed, sheriffs in Colorado, for example, refused to enforce it, Finnell said. "And then there were movements in Oregon and Washington that began passing Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinances.
Like Bradford and Huntingdon counties, most local governments have opted for resolutions, that serve more as expressions of opinion than an ordinance that is intended to set law, according to an analysis by the Mises Institute, an Alabama-based think tank focusing on economics and issues related to individual freedom. I
In Texas, more than a dozen counties passed non-binding Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions, according to the Nov. 25 Mises Institute report. “The same has happened in dozens of counties in Illinois, along with Lake County, Florida, Mohave County, Arizona and elsewhere,” according to the group.
"As far as Pennsylvania is concerned," Finnell continued, "gun owners are seeing what happened in Virginia and saying to themselves, 'if our legislature flips like Virginia's did, in 2021 we don't want to be caught scrambling.' This is something we are doing to be prepared."
Virginia's legislature proposed, and pre-filed bills — like an assault weapons ban. These laws are being fast-tracked through the legislature. "That sparked the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement in Virginia. A number of counties in Virginia subsequently declared themselves Second Amendment Sanctuaries."
According to The Associated Press, more than 100 Virginia cities, towns and counties have expressed their support for gun rights, adopting Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions.
But Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring released an advisory opinion on Dec. 20 concluding that the Second Amendment sanctuaries “have no legal effect.”
Local governments “are required to comply with all laws enacted by the General Assembly until those laws are repealed by the legislature or invalidated by the judiciary,” Herring wrote.
However, even if these moves carry little legal weight, they could still influence the way law enforcement officials do their job, said Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"Still, what we want, first and foremost is for people to register to vote, contact their legislators in Harrisburg and in D.C.," Finnell said. "If those things fail we are asking our local officials to not enforce unconstitutional gun laws."
Do we need Sanctuary Laws?
Ernie Ritter, Union County sheriff, said Thursday, "as the elected county Sheriff, I recognize the responsibility of law enforcement is to protect the citizens and preserve individual rights and freedom."
While Ritter declined to comment on the specifics of the Second Amendment Sanctuary Ordinance approved by Buffalo Township, he had a firm statement about Second Amendment rights.
"I have sworn an oath," he said, "to support, defend and obey the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
In accordance with the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, he said, "I believe that law-abiding citizens have the right to own, possess, keep and bear arms. I will not support any efforts to infringe upon the Constitutional liberties of responsible citizens of Union County.
"I continue to stand with my citizens," Ritter said, "to assure that their rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will not be infringed."
Lewisburg Borough Council President Luis Medina thinks that laws already on the books should suffice, but added that when Waltman makes his presentation to council, "We'll certainly listen. I don't know the details of the Sanctuary Ordinance and I'm questioning the motives of the movement. The Second Amendment protects your right to bear arms. I think common sense laws can co-exist with the Second Amendment. An example of that is the domestic abusers bill (Act 79), which was supported by then-state Rep. Fred Keller. It's a common-sense law that exists with the Second Amendment. It doesn't infringe on the Second Amendment, which is the lie propagated by the NRA."
Waltman did not say when he would meet with the council.
Transitions CEO Susan Mathias said people who are in favor of no restrictions at all on guns "are troubled by some legislation that is beginning to happen."
Transitions is a crime victim center serving victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other serious crimes in Snyder, Union and Northumberland counties.
"Pennsylvania's laws are already pretty liberal about gun ownership," Mathias said, "so I am trying to understand why a sanctuary ordinance would be needed. I'm mystified by this, and I would have to learn more about it."