12/19/2019 7:30:00 AM St. Germain proposes Second Amendment sanctuary
Fred Williston Special to the Lakeland Times
St. Germain town supervisors Monday debated a proposed resolution to make the municipality a Second Amendment "sanctuary" town.
Over the past several years, sanctuary movements have become a nationwide trend in which municipalities, counties, or states opt not to enforce laws they deem unfair or unconstitutional. As an example, traditionally left-leaning cities like San Francisco do not enforce - or assist with enforcement of - federal immigration laws.
In the past several months, the tactic of non-enforcement has also been adopted by the political right wing. As a result, Second Amendment sanctuaries have been established as havens for the rights of gun-owners. Most recently, neighboring Florence County declared itself to be Wisconsin's first Second Amendment sanctuary county.
In such sanctuaries, laws currently pertaining to gun use (against such things as threats or harm to individuals, reckless discharge, public endangerment, or poaching) remain on the books and are still enforced. Laws which may be potentially enacted in the future and infringe upon the guarantees of the Second Amendment, however, can be ignored.
The proposed resolution for St. Germain was drafted and introduced by supervisor Brian Cooper, who used Florence County's recent change as the template for his draft.
"There were also a couple of other counties in the state, I think, that had also brought that up in the last couple of months, and that got my attention," Cooper told The Lakeland Times. "That kind of piqued my interest in it, and when Florence did it, it was like, 'Oh, well; this is something that we need to look at."
Cooper does not consider himself to be a "hardcore" supporter of the Second Amendment, but rather a "staunch" one. He believes without the Second Amendment, all other rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution "will go away pretty quick, that's for sure."
Those in attendance at Monday's meeting had three primary concerns about the proposal.
Sheriff into a judge
After reviewing Cooper's draft, town chairman Tom Christensen said he agreed with Cooper.
"I agree with what it's trying to do, Brian, and I understand it, but I have one concern," Christensen said.
Christensen then read an excerpt from the proposal: "Be it further resolved, that the people of the Town of St. Germain, Wisconsin affirms its support of the Sheriff of Vilas County, Wisconsin to exercise sound discretion not to enforce against any citizen an unconstitutional firearms law."
"That statement I have a problem with, because the way our system works is, the law is passed by our legislature and signed by our governor, and at that point, the sheriff's department should be bound to enforce whatever that law is," Christensen said. "Then the court system has to come back and say 'No, that's unconstitutional', and at that point, the sheriff's department is relieved of enforcing the law. That statement sounds like Sheriff (Joe) Fath can - on his own - say 'I'm not going to enforce that law because I think it's unconstitutional,' and we're having that at a federal level right at the present time with some of these sanctuary cities not enforcing federal law."
He said he believed that's wrong and the court system has gone through and determined a law to be unconstitutional.
"You can't just have sheriffs' departments throughout the country deciding 'I'm not going to enforce that because I don't think it's right,'" Christensen said. "I have a problem with that statement only. The rest of the resolution, I think I'm all right with."
In essence, he said the way the resolution was presented was, to him, like telling Fath if he felt "this is unconstitutional, you don't have to enforce it."
"I don't think that's right," Christensen said. "It's not the job of a sheriff to decide if a law is unconstitutional. We don't know if something is unconstitutional until a federal or state court says 'Hey, you've got a problem here and we're striking it down.'"
"It's illegal," supervisor Ted Ritter added. "We're telling the sheriff we want him to do what we want him to do whether it's legal for him to do that or not. This strikes me as a little bit of paranoia. If we adopt this resolution, that means we're concerned that the state of Wisconsin might, at some point, adopt a law that we think is an illegal law, and we're going to act on it now before it can happen. That's how it strikes me."
What message is sent?
Ritter also expressed concern about public perception - and a lack of public debate to this point - should the board adopt the resolution immediately.
"I received one call (from a constituent), and his concern was that this action on the part of St. Germain would send a message out to the tourism community that may not be well-received, and it would kind of cast a negative light on the town and its attitude towards law enforcement," Ritter said. "(The constituent) said, for instance - and I didn't see this - that as soon as Florence County adopted its resolution, it made the Milwaukee paper's front page immediately, and because there have been so few other communities that have done something like this, he suspects that the same thing would happen to St. Germain if we did this, and he's not comfortable with the image that projects on the Town of St. Germain. I'm just repeating what he said."
"(The constituent) said the same thing to me, and I tried to nail him down on what image that is,"Cooper replied. "He assured me that - and I quote - 'He's a liberal tree-hugger that wants the government to pay for education and healthcare, but he owns guns and he's pro-gun.' So I didn't know exactly how to take that. We had a half-hour conversation on Saturday night, and I still don't understand what his concern was about the attention. I explained the resolution to him because he had not read it, and he seemed to be OK with the resolution once I got done explaining to him what it entailed."
Later, Cooper acknowledged to The Lakeland Times passage of the resolution by the St. Germain town board would bring attention.
"Yeah, it's going to," he said. "But I don't know that it's going to be undue or bad attention."
Town clerk Tom Martens also voiced a concern.
"How about the last point at the bottom?" he asked, reading the excerpt "Now, the people of the town of St. Germain ..."
"What people?" Martens asked. "You five?" and he indicated the members of the board.
"What people are in favor of this and what people are against this?" Martens asked.
"That's also a good point," Ritter said. "I've heard from one person in town, and I'm certain there are a lot more people who have opinions, one way or the other. At the very least, I'd like to see this tabled until there's more opportunity for input from the community and consideration by the Vilas County Law Enforcement Committee ... they may say 'That's a good idea; we encourage you to do it,' or they may say something else. I don't know."
He said he didn't know if he was in favor of the resolution or not but said he wasn't in favor of approving it at this time.
"I would be much more comfortable if there was an opportunity for this to be discussed by the Vilas County Law Enforcement Committee - which oversees the sheriff's department - or with the sheriff himself," Ritter said.
Cooper told the board he had made two attempts to contact Fath for input before presenting the resolution, but scheduling conflicts between the two prevented a conversation prior to the board meeting.
"There are 14 towns plus the city of Eagle River in this county," Ritter said. "And at the town level, we have already rescinded our gun-control laws. Because we said, first of all, that we can't enforce them at the town level, and secondly, that they really need to be dealt with at the county level or the state level. So, even if the state were to do something like this, it wouldn't have a direct effect on us because we don't have our own gun laws to enforce in the first place ... and being that there are 14 other municipalities, I don't know what their views are on this, but I'd certainly like to know what the county's view is."
Ultimately, the board tabled taking action on the resolution "to a date uncertain."
On Tuesday, Cooper contacted Vilas County supervisor Marv Anderson and requested the resolution be placed on the next agenda for discussion by the county's law enforcement committee.
"We'll see what happens with the law enforcement committee," Cooper told The Lakeland Times. "I don't think it's dead. I think there's plenty of interest for it with our town board. I think they just want to get a question or two answered and go from there."
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