PARKERSBURG - Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt, along with other sheriffs around the country, reportedly has signed a petition stating he would not enforce a federal assault weapons ban if one is passed.
President Barack Obama has proposed a number of executive actions, including a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition and a universal background check requirement for all new gun purchases. If the ban becomes law, a number of sheriffs have gone on record saying they wouldn't enforce it, calling it a violation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"I am a firm believer in the Second Amendment and would not enforce laws contrary to the Second Amendment, I feel that is unconstitutional," said Shawn Graham, chief law enforcement deputy.
Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt could not be reached for comment Thursday, but a petition created by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association lists Roane County Sheriff Mike Harper and Merritt as signers of a petition that states it is a "line in the sand" against the federal government.
"The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, 'Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.' This is not only within the scope of the sheriff's authority; it's the sheriff's sworn duty," according to the petition's statement. The group is headed by former Arizona sheriff and Gun Owners of America lobbyist Richard Mack and has been designated an anti-government group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
According to Associated Press reports, Merritt said he signed the petition last month because some of his family members have died at war to protect the Constitution.
Obama "can make statements on a podium, but to me it's saying, 'You don't have the Constitution anymore and we didn't give it to you as a right in the first place,'" Merritt was quoted as saying.
Merritt said he didn't want to be labeled a radical and hasn't decided exactly how he would defy the assault weapons ban.
Merritt was quoted as saying he supports the president's proposal to ramp up law enforcement protection at schools. Several public schools in Wood County already have armed officers and he's meeting with a private school this week to place an officer there, he said. The grant-funded officers have weapons, Wood County Sheriff's Department officials said Thursday.
Contacted Thursday by The News and Sentinel, Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton said he has not seen the petition.
Asked if the sheriff had the authority not to enforce the ban if it becomes law and what the ramifications would be if he chose to do so, Wharton said, "Generally speaking it is the duty of the sheriff to uphold the laws. The sheriff's oath indicates that he will 'support the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of West Virginia, and that (he) will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of the office of Wood County sheriff in and for Wood County, West Virginia, to the best of (his) skill and judgment.' A law that is declared unconstitutional cannot be enforced because once it is declared unconstitutional it is void. In the event that a law were to be passed that appeared on its face to be unconstitutional, the sheriff would have to exercise his judgment as indicated in his oath to uphold the Constitution in determining whether to enforce the same until its constitutionality could be tested by the courts. It would ultimately be up to the courts to determine the constitutionality of any particular law," Wharton said.
According to a press release issued by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in Fredericksburg, Texas, "Retired Sheriff Richard Mack is leading a coalition of county sheriffs from all over the United States to stand against President Obama's gun control measures."
Mack is known for winning a previous gun control battle by fighting the Clinton administration and getting the Brady Act overturned by the Supreme Court. The association advocates for sheriff's keeping their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, including the sheriff's duties to protect the Second Amendment rights of their constituents.
The West Virginia Sheriffs' Association has not yet taken a formal stand on any current federal proposals. So far five West Virginia sheriffs have individually said they won't enforce any federal ban on assault weapons.
The executive director of the state association said she is still researching what would happen if sheriffs defy federal laws.
The assault weapons ban proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would make owning such weapons a federal crime. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin declined Wednesday to comment on the proposed ban and what it would mean for sheriffs who defy it.
The White House issued a written plan with four goals: Keeping guns out of the wrong hands, getting "weapons of war" off the streets, upgrading school safety and improving mental health services.
(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)