(Attempts At) Sympathy For The Sheriff

Yesterday was big for gun control advocates and opponents alike. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed into law bills that require background checks for gun owners and restrict the sale of magazines with more than 15 rounds. “If legislation like this can pass in Colorado,” said Hickenlooper, “it can happen anywhere.” He’s right, and with laws already passed in New York and bills pending in Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey, we are likely to see a new wave of state-level gun control in the near future.

While reading more in depth about the context of the bills’ signing, the horrific acts of violence that have led to Colorado’s implementation of this law, I began to feel queasy. Why did it take so long for laws like these to get passed? Why does it take needless death after needless death to directly confront the causes of our society’s problems?

I may have come across the answer when I came across Sheriff John Cooke from Weld County, Colorado. Cooke is among the local law enforcers of the state vowing not to enforce the new legislation, claiming the laws unconstitutional. Time will tell whether he and his compatriots are right, and they might be, but that’s not what caught me off guard.

Maybe it was what I perceived as the absurdity of the picture of Cooke surrounded by his local force of police officers, but I couldn’t help but feel some weird sense of pity for his cause. Experts have indicated that the divide between those in favor of gun control versus those against it in the law enforcement is a clear divide between urban and rural. It struck me that Cooke might see himself as a guardian a way of life that could be on its way out.

I’ll readily admit that these laws are way overdue. Hailing from a suburb of Boston, however, I haven’t had anything close to the upbringing Cooke and his men had or that their children have had—I simply don’t get why guns are so important to so many people. Historically, in terms of militias, I think I have an idea. But with a military as strong as the one the US has, the notion of a militia actually taking up arms against the government with any hopes of victory seems to me absurd. Again, maybe I don’t “get it.” Maybe the sheriffs’ concerns aren’t about anything close to militias. Maybe it’s purely about tradition. And maybe that’s why, amidst my initial celebration of the passing of these laws, I did a double take.

"Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull (Source: US Capitol; public domain)
“Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull (Source: US Capitol; public domain)

Basically, I think it’s worth taking into consideration the fact this wave of gun control laws, like many of the laws our governments pass with good intentions, will not necessarily serve everyone in the ways they intend them to. I’m by no means suggesting that we abandon the law as a mechanism for trying to administer justice or protect the innocent. But if there are segments of the American population, however small, whose lives and traditions will be stifled because of new legislation, is it not worth taking time to at least try to sympathize with their concerns?

Maybe you’re like me, and you don’t buy that Sheriff Cooke’s local worries should override the public good. At the end of the day, I really do think these new laws are fantastic. But that image, of men behind a desk taking a stand against what they see as tyranny: what could be more American than that?