Midlands sheriffs: More gun bans won’t help

Kershaw County sheriff asks for legal opinion on enforcing federal gun laws

nophillips@thestate.comJanuary 19, 2013 

— In the wake of President Obama’s 23-step plan to decrease gun violence, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews has asked for an attorney general’s opinion to define sheriffs’ obligations when it comes to enforcing federal law.

Matthews said it’s pretty clear that sheriffs do not enforce federal laws, and he doesn’t believe that he can stop federal agents from coming into his county to enforce them.

But he believes an attorney general’s opinion will help his case when explaining his position to local residents.

“A lot of sheriffs want to be able to fall back on what the AG says on what we lawfully have to do or don’t have to do,” Matthews said.

The debate on local sheriffs’ powers and obligations is brewing as local residents who oppose most gun control measures wonder where their elected law enforcement officials stand. Matthews said he asked for the opinion because he wants to be prepared with the correct answer when asked.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said it’s pretty clear to him that he does not enforce federal law. Lexington County Sheriff James Metts agreed.

“We enforce county and state laws,” Lott said.

As for telling federal agents to butt out in Richland County, Lott said he would not do that.

“That’s the last thing we need, is having law enforcement arguing with each other,” he said.

While sheriffs may not have much choice in deciding which laws to enforce, it’s not stopping them from weighing in with opinions as the nation grapples over how to best curb gun violence.

In Charleston, Sheriff Al Cannon held a press conference Thursday to voice his opposition to proposed national gun restrictions. He created controversy by dumping bullets out of his revolver and saying, “The only way I can hurt you with this is if I hit you with it,” according to The (Charleston) Post and Courier.

Matthews said he is against any ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.

“I’m not going to get rid of mine,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with assault weapon owners who follow the law. My problem is with thugs who should be in jail who get their hands on guns.”

Lott said a ban on assault weapons won’t accomplish anything.

“There’s already so many of them out there,” he said.

And he holds the same opinion of the sales of high-capacity magazines, which are being snapped up by people who fear a ban.

“The only people who are going to benefit from that are the gun manufacturers,” Lott said. “They’re going to make a mint.”

Metts said most Lexington County residents oppose any gun or magazine ban. He believes the answer to curb gun violence is to better enforce existing gun laws.

“We’re not going to stop guns,” Metts said. “If we banned them, they would still be available to the criminal underground. We’ve been down that road before, and it didn’t help.”

Metts believes mental health care needs more funding, saying most of those who commit mass murders are mentally ill.

“What we’re dealing with is violent people and mentally ill people,” he said.

Metts did approve of Obama’s proposal to make federal money available to pay for more school resource officers. Some Midlands area senators have introduced a bill to spend state money to put a law enforcement officer in every S.C. school.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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