Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Red flag laws, invasive gun registration initiatives and a growing fear of proposed legislative firearms restrictions have spawned a burgeoning Second Amendment sanctuary movement intent on preserving the “right to keep and bear arms.”

And while there are only two such designated towns in Maine — Fort Fairfield and Paris — more local governments are considering passing gun sanctuary resolutions.

“Brownfield just called me about it,” said Rusty Brackett, chairman of Paris Maine’s select board.

And Fort Fairfield town leaders said several towns have asked to see their resolution after the council declared Fort Fairfield a Second Amendment sanctuary in January.

So, what is a Second Amendment sanctuary?

While the pronouncements vary, these gun safe havens — declared by towns, cities, counties, states and sheriffs around the nation — are basically created through local resolutions, ordinances and, in some cases, state laws, aimed at pushing back against state and federal gun control measures passed or proposed.

Still, as this movement takes root in Maine, it remains unclear how such measures will affect local law enforcement, the sale of guns and ammunition, mental health situations involving guns and the commission of criminal acts. Additionally, a fear-based rush to pass such resolutions without public discussion and discourse could lead to future unintended consequences for municipalities.

In Fort Fairfield, Bob Kilcollins, the town councilor who drafted the town’s recently approved resolution, is confident in the town council’s decision as he points to pending federal legislation, H.R. 127, introduced in January by Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

Cars drive through downtown Fort Fairfield in this November 2016 file photo. Credit: Micky Bedell / BDN

“Just read it,” he said, holding up a copy as others in his Route 165 sport shop expressed fears that new gun laws will take away the rights of legal gun owners. “The resolution protects us from bogus gun laws … these bills affect legal gun owners and there is a fear today that the new administration now in office will play games with our constitutional rights and that is not fair.”

If passed, Rep. Jackson Lee’s new bill limits or prohibits certain ammunition, establishes a firearm registration system, a database of gun owners, as well as strict licensing requirements.

While Kilcollins said Fort Fairfield now only follows one gun law, the Second Amendment, the weight and meaning of such resolutions is debatable.

There are some, like Geoff Bickford, the head of Maine’s Gun Safety Coalition, who say these Second Amendment Sanctuaries are nothing more than temper tantrums.

Others, like Lillie Lavado, chairwoman of the Aroostook County Democrats, find the term sanctuary as it relates to guns, objectionable.

“In this context, sanctuary is intentionally offensive to refugees and survivors of mass shootings. Extremist rhetoric is manufacturing partisan tensions, resulting in radical movements like the Second Amendment sanctuary plot,” Lavado said on Friday. “Today, Aroostook County’s leaders should be focused on equitable expansion of opportunities for us all, rather than obsessing over the 230-year-old Second Amendment.”

Nonetheless, giving these pro-gun moves little credence is dangerous, said Kris Brown, president of Brady, a gun violence prevention organization.

“This is not a grassroots movement, but rather it is a National Rifle Association marketing campaign,” she said. “They are attempting to recast all gun laws as violating the Second Amendment. This confuses people.”

But as the power and definition of such sanctuaries gets bandied about, the movement is gaining steam with hundreds of U.S. localities passing similar measures. Additionally, several states — including Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas — are already designated Second Amendment sanctuaries while others have introduced legislation that, if passed, would designate the entire state as a Second Amendment sanctuary.

To take it even further, a proposed Texas law, H.B. 112, states that any law enforcement officer enforcing certain gun laws could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

Constitutional scholar Shawn Fields, assistant professor of law at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in North Carolina, said cloudy interpretations of the Second Amendment and the way the resolution is drafted have bearing on its weight.

If the town drafts a generic resolution stating the town rejects all unconstitutional gun laws, the move is likely symbolic. And those identifying specific gun laws the town will not enforce may have more teeth, Fields said.

The Fort Fairfield resolution expresses opposition to any law that would unconstitutionally restrict the rights of citizens to peacefully keep and bear arms, and it declares its intent to oppose unconstitutional restrictions on this right.

“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Antonin Scalia on the Second Amendment

Town Manager Andrea Powers explained that the town only rejects unconstitutional gun laws.

But there lies the problem. How are towns interpreting whether a gun law is unconstitutional?

The answer for Fort Fairfield is found in the constitution, meaning any law that infringes on the right to keep and bear arms, according to Powers.

“That’s a tricky question,” Fields said. “A Second Amendment absolutist says that anything that tries to restrict weapons violates the constitution. But that was not its purpose. Do red flag laws violate the Constitution? We don’t know. The Supreme Court has not decided.”

There is a lot of room for interpretation of the Second Amendment, said Fields, who explained there have been only two U.S. Supreme Court Second Amendment decisions, one in 1934 and the other in 2008, making the parameters of the amendment harder to define.

Some of this comes down to whether the municipality has the support of local law enforcement.

“Sheriffs have enormous discretion not to enforce laws like red flag or gun registration,” Fields said. “And a police chief makes choices every day about what to enforce.”

Kilcollins, like hundreds of other U.S. town leaders, is adamantly convinced law enforcement will back the town’s rejection of all unconstitutional gun laws because they take an oath to defend the Constitution.

“They will stand behind us,” he said.

After repeated calls to the Fort Fairfield police and the Aroostook County Sheriff, they were not reached for comment.

Conversely, Brackett, the chairman of Paris, Maine’s, board of selectmen, is not so sure about the power of his town’s resolution passed in 2019.

The Oxford County courthouse in South Paris, Maine. The sheriff’s office is on the right in back. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Paris’ gun safe designation may be a symbolic measure, according to Brackett, but because the town supports a person’s right to own guns, the board unanimously passed the resolution.

“We wanted to let them know where we stand,” Brackett said on Thursday, referring to Democrats. “Our new president wants nothing more than to take our guns. He’d like to take all our guns away.”

Consider what happened in New Mexico: 29 of 33 sheriffs signed a declaration saying they would not enforce newly proposed gun laws relating to background checks, domestic abuse protection orders, extreme risk (red flag laws) and safe storage. And in emails to local leaders, the sheriffs encouraged towns to become Second Amendment sanctuaries.

“If a woman suffering domestic violence gets a restraining order to remove a gun, she needs to know the sheriff will do so,” Brown said. “This is very dangerous. This idea that the Second Amendment is without limits . . . the Second Amendment does not guarantee everyone a gun.”

Following an extensive public records request, the Brady organization obtained documents and copies of the New Mexico Sheriff’s correspondence with the NRA. And according to Brown, the sheriffs used language in their Second Amendment sanctuary declaration that was fed to them from the NRA.

In a recent paper published in the Northwestern University Law Review, Fields talked about his theory that state home rule laws may offer recourse to these gun safe havens.

“With the home rule, it depends on how the home rule statute is written,” Fields said on Thursday. “There is at least the possibility.”

Maine is a home rule state. Home rule can sometimes give a local government the authority to supersede state law.

Still, Aroostook County District Attorney Todd Collins said that the sanctuary concept is the opposite of how localities often change state laws. For example, there is a statewide disorderly conduct law, but a locality might choose to make it more stringent than the state law.

In the case of Second Amendment sanctuaries, the locality is choosing to reject state law.

“This is the opposite of home rule,” he said.

Ultimately, there will be a test case when a gun law is not enforced and someone gets hurt, Brown said.

“I am worried that innocent people will lose lives,” she said. “Ultimately, I think local government is influenced by a handful of people. I think it is very important for people who care about how law enforcement protects them, [to] raise their voices.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Presque Isle area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the...