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Gun Control Divides County Sheriffs

President Obama and law enforcement officials meet in January to discuss gun violence. To the left of Obama is Hennepin County, Minn., Sheriff Richard W. Stanek; to the right is Charles H. Ramsey, commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.
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President Obama and law enforcement officials meet in January to discuss gun violence. To the left of Obama is Hennepin County, Minn., Sheriff Richard W. Stanek; to the right is Charles H. Ramsey, commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.

When President Obama announced new measures to prevent gun violence, one of the groups there to show support was the National Sheriffs' Association. The group represents more than 3,000 county sheriffs across the country.

But not all sheriffs agree with the group's support for what it calls "common-sense steps," like a universal background check for all gun purchasers.

In Florida, Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott helped pass a proclamation by the Florida Sheriffs Association expressing support for the Second Amendment. But the proclamation then goes a step further, saying members will not "assist, support or condone any unconstitutional infringement of that right."

Sheriffs are for the most part elected officials, and as such, Scott says, they're close to the people they represent. He says that on guns, his constituents' views are clear.

"What we're saying is that new laws are not the answer," Scott says.

The Florida sheriffs group is one of several around the country that have taken a stand in recent weeks, opposing any new gun control legislation in the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"Anybody — whether it's you, me, President Obama, Joe Biden, whoever — anybody that proposes something that usurps the basic rights outlined in the Constitution, we believe will be met with resistance," Scott says.

Last month, the Utah Sheriffs' Association sent a letter to President Obama warning that its members were "prepared to trade our lives" for the preservation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In Colorado, the sheriffs group there issued a five-page position paper warning against "hasty reactions to unfortunate tragedies" like Aurora and Sandy Hook. Among their positions: opposition to bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

These state groups have staked out positions on the debate over gun control that run counter to the national association. Christopher Olson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, says it's not a coincidence that many of the dissenters are in the Western U.S.

"Especially in states like out here in the West, we have a different attitude and a different thought process on the issue of guns, gun ownership, gun control and so on," he says.

Last week in Washington, a couple of hundred sheriffs gathered for the national association's winter meeting. National Sheriffs' Association President Larry Amerson of Calhoun County, Ala., held a news conference in part to respond to the dissenters.

Individual sheriffs, he said, have the right to take whatever position they want. But Amerson said those who say they won't enforce laws they deem unconstitutional may be exceeding their authority.

"A lot of those statements and positions might be a little broad, but again, it's up to that individual sheriff. But the National Sheriffs' Association clearly states that the Constitution of our country makes it clear that the U.S. Supreme Court is the ultimate decider of what is lawful or unlawful," Amerson said.

Sheriff Ted Sexton from Tuscaloosa, Ala., noted that although gun ownership is a right, it can still be restricted. The right to bear arms, he says, is not unlike other constitutional guarantees, such as the right to vote, or freedom of speech.

"Even though we have absolute rights, they still are regulated, and of course the regulation of those rights is interpreted by the courts," Sexton said.

At its meeting, the National Sheriffs' Association restated its support for new gun control measures but said the measures need to be part of a comprehensive approach to preventing gun violence. Amerson said those who don't agree with the national group are just a small minority of the nation's sheriffs. Instead of opposing any new gun control measures, Amerson said his group planned to be at the table when they're being written.

"We're going to be working on policy points — things that we think could be implemented, be really easily done and have an effect, a positive effect. Not every sheriff is in full agreement, but the vast majority of us are," Amerson said.

According to a pro-gun-rights group that is promoting and tracking the opposition, there are now six state associations and 262 individual sheriffs who are on record opposing any new gun control measures.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.