Earlier this month, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) suspended the open-and concealed-carry of firearms in Albuquerque for 30 days. This temporary measure, she said, was in response to the public health problem of increased gun violence in the city, including the shooting death of an 11-year-old.
Almost immediately, gun rights groups decried the move, Sheriff John Allen of Bernalillo County, alongside the Albuquerque police chief, made a public statement explaining that his office would not enforce the governor’s order because of the potential for “civil liability conflicts,” and the concern that enforcing a gun restriction would lead to more violence. The New Mexico Sheriff’s Association also issued a statement opposing the ban.
Other sheriffs jumped aboard. The Arizona Sheriffs’ Association President David Rhodes — who was a sheriff fellow at the Claremont Institute — issued a statement decrying the “full-blown violation of constitutional rights.”
The Western States Sheriffs’ Association (WSSA), which represents sheriffs in the Western United States, described the Second Amendment as “an individual’s right to self-preservation,” and argued that, no matter the outcome or policy intent, Grisham’s order was an unconstitutional assault on individual liberty. The letter quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would sacrifice essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
The president of the WSSA is Lea County, New Mexico Sheriff Corey Helton. In December 2022, Helton appeared with three other Republican New Mexico sheriffs stumping for the GOP candidate for governor and critiquing Grisham’s “soft on crime” approach. Helton now faces removal from the state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission for political bias.
Richard Mack, president and founder of the far-right group Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and other constitutional sheriffs call this tactic “nullification,” or the act of invalidating federal or state law by ignoring it. While none of these sheriffs cite Mack as inspiration — the WSSA representative I spoke with was clear that their response was unrelated to Mack or the CSPOA — Mack has claimed the political situation as a victory. In an email to me, he described these nullification statements by sheriffs as “vindication for me and the CSPOA.”
Sheriffs who support nullification — especially for gun regulations — want you to believe that the tactic is historically sound and used by both left-wing and right-wing radicals, citing examples like marijuana decriminalization or discretionary immigration enforcement by local law enforcement. This is all a misdirect and distracts from the historical and legal context in which right-wing sheriffs like Mack make their arguments. The truth is that the fantastical idea of nullifying gun regulations despite any beneficial policy outcomes is deeply rooted in far-right resistance to recognizing Black Americans as full citizens.
After the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered every school district across the country to desegregate in the name of the U.S. Constitution, the response in most places might seem familiar to us: delay, deflect and refuse. Some states closed schools rather than desegregate. In other ex-Confederate states, white families formed segregation academies or private all-white schools.
State nullification of civil rights was a deliberately racist and intentionally white supremacist project. In 1956, the Virginia Legislature wrote a report justifying the state’s decision to refuse desegregation. Quoting James Madison, the report declares that refusal to enforce Supreme Court rulings is not “positive defiance” — which would go too far, the report demurs — but rather “arresting the progress of the evil.” The evil, of course, was Black children sitting next to white children in schools.
Far-right sheriffs, including those who might not identify as “constitutional sheriffs,” have embraced the notion of nullification using the same quotes from James Madison that the segregationists used. They make these claims without irony, ignoring that these were the words of John C. Calhoun as he sought to ensure that Black citizens would remain enslaved even where they were the majority.
Now, those same sheriffs and their supporters will argue that nullification has been used in service of nobler aims, namely the abolition of chattel slavery. In recent months, Mack has revised his roadshow presentation to focus on quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. — alongside the standard Madison and Patrick Henry — to show that the nonviolent resistance practiced by Civil Rights-era protestors is equivalent to sheriffs’ nullification.
Let’s be clear, however, that this analogy is simply misguided. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (another example Mack is fond of appropriating) were not elected public officials with the right to shoot to kill. Their acts were symbolic protests. It was, in fact, sheriffs who used their right to commit violence to arrest, assault and kill protestors. It was sheriffs who refused to arrest white men who killed Black citizens and who stood aside when white lynch mobs kidnapped Black people — even children — from the local jail in order to enact their own terrible version of “justice.”
In 2023, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association issued a letter signaling their intent to nullify democratically passed gun regulation. After much fuss and political posturing, the movement died for lack of oxygen. Why? Because the laws, which ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines among other measures limiting advertising to children, are democratically popular, enacted by a democratically elected legislature and implemented by a democratically elected governor. If sheriffs cared about racial justice or mass incarceration, they would instead focus on the disproportionate number of young Black men in Illinois prisons for carrying firearms.
Back in New Mexico, a court just ruled that Grisham’s order required revision, and she has altered the order. The sheriffs have declared this the success of the mob, comparing their self-proclaimed victory to sheriffs’ refusals to implement business closures and other health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While sheriffs root their political choices in the world of select (white, male) Founding Fathers, do not be fooled by the claims of inclusiveness through colorblindness. These sheriffs are not working to create a more culturally diverse, pluralistic, democratic world. They are instead replicating a radical movement that wants to return to a world of white supremacy.
Like the state of Alabama, which is refusing to redraw their maps to allow for the minimal amount of proportionate representation, Mack and groups like the Claremont Institute are encouraging sheriffs — who are already disproportionately conservative and support individual gun ownership — are busy undermining the rights of people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants through the dysregulation of firearms. These are the people who face literal armed mobs, the mobs these sheriffs are protecting.
Allowing sheriffs to dictate the implementation of laws — like we saw in Illinois and New Mexico — subverts the democratic will of the people. Sheriffs act as if they are both the sword and the shield, granting the power to shoot to kill to only some segments of the community while committing violence against others. But their words are just flimsy advertisements and promises that will never deliver liberty. It is true that this country was founded in violent revolution, and violent revolution was also required to end chattel slavery. But this does not make enabling insurrection a democratic form of government. Democracy is work that comes after.
Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.