A Lot of Pennsylvanians are Paying Attention to Sheriffs

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. 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.

14 thoughts on “A Lot of Pennsylvanians are Paying Attention to Sheriffs”

  1. Good post on PA Sheriffs in PA. Luckily Lancaster’s one is awesome- happily signs off on NFA Forms, and has an easy process for LTCF. He’s even started to offer basic gun safety classes because of all the new permits.

    So in that respect, I think we need to focus our efforts on the Sheriffs that aren’t as friendly for NFA and LTCF.

  2. “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.”

    What in the hell for? He’s already proven in spades that he’s anti-gun. How does he get to be a gun rights virgin again?

    If I recall correctly, he started his tenure as sheriff, collecting the sheriffs’ fee for notifications for permit holders when their permits were about to expire; and then not sending the notifications. After that he raised the fee for a carry permit to close to twice the fee codified by the General Assembly; in other words he willfully violated the Uniform Firearms Act, surprise, surprise, in his own favor.

    Does he get to be an RKBA virgin because he’s a Republican, or, because he channels John Wayne, plastering “Duke” all over the county’s sheriff department vehicles?

    Anytime I hear someone spouting that “sheriffs are the highest constitutional authority” bullshit, I recall Bucks County Sheriffs I Have Known, and thank God they’re not.

  3. Oh I don’t know. Let’s not throw our PA Sheriffs under the bus yet. All the stuff written above is true, sure. But compared to the Police, who seem to generally work for agencies that can’t wait to take away people’s guns, we have to remember that Sheriffs are “those other guys who have some not so irrelevant armament, vehicles, and jails”. And, they work for elected Judges (in PA, the Sheriffs are the officers of the Courts; similar to how the U.S. Marshall’s are the officers of the Federal courts, except they work for un-elected lifetime-tenured judges.) If there were ever a confrontation between the people and their government and the authorities were out doing raids and seizing guns, perhaps, just perhaps we could look to the Sheriffs as people who are on our side, and who happen to have the firepower, insider-knowledge, and infrastructure to help us. Maybe they would, and maybe they would not. Maybe they would.

    1. Maybe that’s the case. Or maybe Sheriffs are beholden to the same political forces that create the drive to pass gun control in the first place.

  4. In other words, if all the Sheriffs mean by saying, “We pledge to not enforce unconstitutional gun laws” is a big nothing since they don’t “enforce” laws anyway, then I guess it’s pointless for them to say anything. But if what they are trying to say is actually code phrasing for, “…and, we are going to kick some serious butt if anyone else tries to enforce those laws…” then we have something to count on. If that “code phrasing” is just my imagination, then whatever, we are back to their statements being pointless. Do they seem like people given to making pointless statements? Who knows? The people who actually do enforce the laws are probably wondering that very same thing. And that’s probably a good thing.

    1. I think a scenario where it’s Sheriff’s vs. all other state and local law enforcement is far fetched. If you’re going to have principled resistance to federal gun control (meaning agents who attempt to enforce the laws actually get arrested), you’d need all state and local law enforcement on the same page. Maybe the sheriff could have a role in that, but I don’t think the Sheriff is markedly different than other law enforcement agencies, and in Pennsylvania, probably less relevant than the state or local police.

      1. And I’d note that I think even in this scenario, where all local and state law enforcement, and sheriffs are on the same page, the federal tactic would likely be to grab someone and take them to a very secure federal building in Philadelphia before the local LEOs are even wise to it.

  5. 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.

    While this may be true for Pennsylvania, the opposite holds in many other states.

    1. Where I grew up, the Sheriff’s Office was the only local LEO in the entire county. Neither of the two towns in the county had local PD’s.

  6. Just because I spend a lot of time down memory lane, for whatever value it may be to this discussion, I will recall that back in the ’90s a small committee of us from the Bucks County Sportsmens Coalition went to meet with the county sheriff (R) at the time, to see what he was willing to do to resist the Brady Law, in light of the recent SCOTUS decision won by sheriff Richard Mack.

    The words that still ring in my ears are, that sheriff saying he “didn’t care what was constitutional” because the Brady Law permits me to do what I think should be done. At that time, before the initiation of the PICS system, he was charging a significant fee to gun dealers for doing the mandated criminal background checks.

    My greater point here, beyond telling stories, is that there are no officers of The State who are greater repositories of civic or constitutional virtue than any others, nor that are more immune to local popular opinion. Rural sheriffs in general appear to be swell for the RKBA; urban and suburban sheriffs, not so much. Is anyone surprised, or take either tendency as evidence of inherent virtue in the office?

    The same sheriff who was so cognizant of the desires of his greater yuppie constituency in our county, was alleged to have told a gruff old fellow I know that his carry permit came with an “[n-word]-back guarantee.” If he used his gun to kill an [n-word], the sheriff would refund his permit application fee. So, the old fellow assured me the sheriff was to the right of Daniel Boone as far as gun rights were concerned — at the same time that sheriff was telling us the he didn’t care about constitutionality.

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