I’ve gotten a lot of inquires into Sheriff elections, and a faction of the local gun rights group in Bucks County is very focused on sheriff issues, putting pressure on the local Sheriff Joe “Duke” Donnelly to sign pledges, etc. The focus on Sheriffs, as best I can research, is a legacy from the militia movement in the 90s, and was mostly hatched in states where Sheriffs play a greater role than they do here. I think it’s a huge distraction from the real issues in Pennsylvania.
First, the sheriff is not not imparted with any special constitutional status in our federal system, short of what state constitutions and state law have to say about the office, and that’s going to vary wildly from state-to-state. The only thing special about the office of Sheriff is that it is, in most states, an elected office, whereas the people don’t really have direct say, in most cases, about who ends up Chief of Police, except by proxy through City Counsels and Mayors for local police, or State Legislators and Governors for State Police. I think direct election of law enforcement is actually a good thing in a free society, and think we should do more of it, but that’s a separate issue from Sheriffs.Â In Pennsylvania, there are two issues with Sheriffs when it comes to guns in Pennsylvania.
One is that they issue permits. Historically (though it’s getting better) some Sheriffs have loved to add their own requirements, overcharge for the permit, or in the case of Philadelphia (who by state law issue through the Philadelphia Police Department rather than Philadelphia Sheriff) engage in all kinds of extralegal jerking around of LTC applicants and holders. That’s an issue to be cognizant of when election time comes around.
The other is that for NFA paperwork, the Pennsylvania Sheriffs are usually considered the CLEO when it comes to sign-off on ATF Form 4s. While ATF will accept local Chiefs’ signatures, Chiefs will often defer to the Sheriff on that matter. If your Sheriff won’t sign off, your only other route is an NFA trust, and there are numerous counties that won’t sign Form 4. In my area, Bucks and Chester are the only two counties I’m aware of that will sign-off. So this is a legitimate consideration.
Beyond those two issues, Sheriffs in Pennsylvania, and Constables, are a legacy from the time when most states had no professional law enforcement. While they are considered sworn officers under Pennsylvania law, the law does not give the office of Sheriff or Constable generalized law enforcement powers, such as those exercised by the State Police or your local police department. The Sheriff only has the power to enforce edicts of the Commonwealth Courts. Traditionally, before the age of professional law enforcement, if a Sheriff needed assistance to serve a warrant or bring someone before the Courts for trial, he would deputize local militia. Sheriffs still have the power in Pennsylvania, but I’m not aware it’s ever been used in modern times.
In short, when it comes to enforcement of unconstitutional federal laws, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you’re harassing your Sheriff. That’s a matter to take up within your local communities and with your local police chief, and with the State Police through state representatives, Senators, and the Governor’s office. Local police cannot be commandeered to enforce federal law under the anti-commandeering doctrine, as a matter of already established case law. Any enforcement of federal law by local authorities is purely voluntary on their part, and they cannot legally be forced to cooperate in any federal gun control scheme. But regardless of whether that’s the case or not, it’s not something Sheriffs have anything to do with in Pennsylvania.