CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A handful of West Virginia sheriffs have publicly declared they won't enforce any new federal laws that they believe violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms, though the organization that represents all 55 has yet to take a stand in the growing debate over curtailing gun violence.
Media outlets report that Boone County Sheriff Randall White sent a letter this week to President Barack Obama, while Roane County Sheriff Mike Harper and Wood County Sheriff Ken Merritt signed a petition created by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association to become 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,'" that group says. "This is not only within the scope of the sheriff's authority; it's the sheriff's sworn duty."
No legislation currently before Congress suggests all all-out ban on guns, but one bill would ban certain models of semiautomatic rifles and handguns, as well as large-volume ammunition clips.
Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner says he won't enforce any gun laws that Congress may pass because he is charged with defending the entire U.S. Constitution.
"Everybody, and I mean everybody, has an inherent right to be able to defend themselves," he said. "That is beyond written law. That's the law of nature."
Tanner believes only "five or six really loud morons" in Congress support outlawing certain weapons, but if such a bill does pass, "it will not be enforced on a local level."
Guns are inanimate tools, Tanner said, just like knives, pencils and spoons.
"It's not the pencil's fault we misspell words. It's not the spoon's fault we have fat people. It's not the gun's fault people are shooting each other," he said. "Blaming the gun is ridiculous. I don't hear anybody blaming cars for drunken drivers."
But Kanawha County Sheriff Johnny Rutherford, who oversees the state's largest county, says he won't weigh in on specific legislation.
"We're going to enforce the laws, whatever the laws are," he said. "I'm not going to get into the politics of it. Our job is to enforce the laws and make our community safe."
Rudi Raynes-Kidder, executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs' Association, said members can express their personal views, but the organization has no formal stance on any current proposal. Next month, it will discuss whether to adopt one.
Meanwhile, she's researching what might happen if sheriffs were to defy federal laws.
White, in Boone County, supports background checks and tougher prison sentences for people convicted of gun crimes. But in his letter to the White House, he said he won't support or enforce "any alterations to the Constitution of the United States or any of its amendments, specifically the right to bear arms."
Hardy County Sheriff Bryan Ward also says he won't enforce "any unconstitutional law."
Ward, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, blames moral decay for mass shootings like the one that killed 20 children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Conn., last month.
Putnam County Sheriff Steve Deweese says that if an order came to seize an AK-47 from someone who hadn't committed a crime, "my answer is probably no." However, he does support making it harder to buy weapons at gun shows, where there are no background checks.
"If I want to go to a gun show in Eleanor and buy a .22 long rifle," he said, "I can give them $300 and walk out with it."
Not that he's necessarily worried about people stockpiling weapons in fear of a looming gun ban.
"Most of the houses we go to on a daily basis have at least one or two guns already in the house," Deweese said. "West Virginia is well known for that and has been for years."