Does your sheriff think he’s more powerful than the president?

Gun Rights

One morning last year, around 60 sheriffs and deputies gathered outside Houston for a training that proved to be less about enforcing laws than about subverting them. After a prayer from a pastor dressed like George Washington (wig, frilly collar, musket), the crowd heard from Gary Heavin, the founder of the Curves International fitness chain, who called the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden “blatantly, in-our-faces stolen.” Then he turned to the reporters in the room (“propagandists”) identifiable by their masks (“diapers”), and said, “I don’t know whether this is going to scare you or comfort you, but just about every person in this room is armed.” The room erupted in cheers 1.

Heavin was helping the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association fund this training, but the dominant presence that day was the group’s founder and director, Richard Mack. With his Reaganesque swoosh of dark hair and the cadence of a country preacher, he delivered his organization’s central message: that sheriffs, within their counties, are more powerful than any state or federal authority, and that they can resist “tyranny” by refusing to enforce laws they believe violate the U.S. Constitution. “This is a peaceful and effective process, à la Martin Luther King, à la Gandhi, à la Rosa Parks,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League calls Mack’s organization an “anti-government extremist group,” while he prefers to invoke Barry Goldwater’s 1964 battle cry: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Since founding the group in 2011, Mack estimates it has trained at least 800 sheriffs. Agencies in several states, including Texas and Virginia, have allowed officers to use these events for professional education credits. 

While Mack once focused on gun rights, now he’s pushing sheriffs to investigate the 2020 election. One of his sheriff allies is facing a state investigation over his role in seizing a voting tabulator, while others are talking about boosting surveillance during future elections, raising concerns that they will try to intimidate voters. “I don’t think any sheriff is trying to intimidate people not to vote,” Mack recently told The New York Times.

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But how influential are Mack’s views? Very, as it turns out. 

Political scientists Emily Farris and Mirya Holman
Mack’s group has successfully radicalized a generation of sheriffs to believe that the office has seemingly unlimited power and autonomy.

The Marshall Project collaborated with political scientists Emily Farris and Mirya Holman on a survey of America’s 3,000-plus sheriffs last year. More than 500 responded, and more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed after taking the survey. Though only a handful claimed membership in Mack’s group, more than 200 (nearly half of the respondents) agreed with him that their own authority, within their counties, supersedes 2 that of the state or federal government. (Another 132 clicked “neutral.”) More than 300 — which account for one-tenth of America’s roughly 3,000 sheriffs — said they are willing to place themselves between a higher government authority and their constituents, an action they call “interposition.”

Mack was once a board member of the Oath Keepers, the militia group whose members are currently on trial for invading the U.S. Capitol. He said he left the group years ago, but some sheriffs have appeared on leaked member lists. The Marshall Project’s survey demonstrates the group’s wider popularity 3: 11% of responding sheriffs said they personally support the Oath Keepers’s positions, though the survey did not ask for specifics. (More than a quarter said they didn’t know the group’s positions or had never heard of it.)

Mack’s group has “successfully radicalized a generation of sheriffs to believe that the office has seemingly unlimited power and autonomy,” Farris and Holman write in a forthcoming book on sheriffs that draws on this survey.

Certainly Mack sees the results as validating. “I was surprised by some of that, and pleased,” he said. “The people of the country are getting behind us.”

2021 U.S. sheriff survey results
The Marshall Project with Emily Farris (Texas Christian University) and Mirya Holman (Tulane University), 2021

Meet Richard Mack

Over his long, peripatetic career, Mack has learned to persuade people: He’s been a car salesman, high school history teacher, reality show contestant (on the 2004 season of Showtime’s “American Candidate”), recruiter (for Gun Owners of America) and unsuccessful entrant into Republican primaries for governor of Utah and congressperson from Texas. In the early 1980s, as a young police officer in Provo, Utah, he attended a training conducted by W. Cleon Skousen on the basics of the U.S. Constitution. (Skousen was known for saying the document had divine origins, but Mack didn’t recall any religious content in the training he attended.)

Mack then moved back to his hometown in Graham County, a sparsely populated stretch of southeastern Arizona, where he was elected sheriff in 1988. Five years later, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which temporarily required sheriffs and other local law enforcement officials to run background checks on people who wanted to buy guns. Mack and several of his peers mounted a lawsuit, with the help of the National Rifle Association, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, with Justice Antonin Scalia declaring that the provision violated state sovereignty.

Graham County, Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack (left) and Ravalli County, Montana, Sheriff and Coroner Jay Printz (right) with Orange County, Vermont, Sheriff Sam Frank (center) outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 1996, after a hearing on the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Graham County, Arizona, Sheriff Richard Mack (left) and Ravalli County, Montana, Sheriff and Coroner Jay Printz (right) with Orange County, Vermont, Sheriff Sam Frank (center) outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 1996, after a hearing on the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
Richard Ellis, ZUMAPRESS.com

Mack became a hero to Second Amendment activists. By then, a smaller cohort on the right had come to argue for sheriff supremacy, an idea that scholars trace back to the “Posse Comitatus” movement (“power of the county,” in Latin) a generation earlier. (The movement’s founder, William Potter Gale, argued the Constitution was divinely inspired to elevate white people above other racial groups, and some of his followers attacked government officials.) Mack regularly disavows racism and violence, and said he knows nothing about Gale. But the image of a county sheriff standing up to federal “tyranny” grew increasingly popular amid anger at how federal agents handled early 1990s sieges at the Branch Davidian compound, in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, in rural Idaho. 

At Ruby Ridge, a white separatist named Randy Weaver faced arrest after having sold two sawed-off shotguns to a government informant. In the ensuing standoff, federal agents fatally shot his wife and son. Mack wrote a foreword to Weaver’s book about these events.

Although he lost his campaign for a third term as sheriff, Mack traveled around the country as a public speaker and author. He worked closely with the family of Ammon Bundy during a 2014 armed confrontation with agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management over unpaid fees and cattle grazing rights. “We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front,” Mack told Fox News at the time, according to The Blaze. “If they are going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.” (He later backtracked, telling Talking Points Memo that this wasn’t an explicit strategy and the women did this “on their own,” despite his misgivings.)

In a 2019 study, political scientist Zoe Nemerever found that the presence of a sheriff with “Constitutionalist” views was associated with a higher likelihood of violent confrontation between their constituents and federal Bureau of Land Management employees. “Who has been violent in our country?” Mack asked The Marshall Project during an interview. “The federal government has, quite often.”

Many of the sheriffs interviewed after they took The Marshall Project’s survey said they have a fine working relationship with state and federal law enforcement. But others complained about them, particularly in Western states with lots of federal land. “My backyard is a national forest,” said Sheriff Cameron Noel of Beaver County, Utah (population 7,250). “We’d have forest rangers that would come in. They don’t live here … and if a guy is up there with his family to recreate, if he’s got a taillight out, they’re going to write him a federal violation.”

The Constitutional sheriff movement gave such conflicts over authority a more right-wing cast, according to Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Mack is successful in part because he plays to conceptions sheriffs have of themselves already, but with an ideological twist,” he said.

Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association
Who has been violent in our country? The federal government has, quite often.

Mack’s early focus on gun rights proved prescient. Following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress began discussing background checks and bans on assault weapons. “My phone [started] ringing off the hook,” recalled Sheriff Brad DeLay of Lawrence County, Missouri (population. 38,300). “People [were coming] to me and [saying], ‘Hey, Obama says he’s going to take away our guns.’” 

Some sheriffs said they learned about Mack’s movement from constituents. “I’ve been asked ‘Are you a Sheriff Mack follower?’” said Noel.

Mack went on to compile the names of nearly 500 sheriffs who rejected gun control measures and encouraged others to join them. He had hit the right issue for the right audience. According to the survey, sheriffs as a whole tend to be skeptical of gun laws 4: 79% said they should be less strict than they are today. (21% said they should be more strict.)

2021 U.S. sheriff survey results
The Marshall Project with Emily Farris (Texas Christian University) and Mirya Holman (Tulane University), 2021

After a mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert in 2017, Nevada lawmakers created a process to take guns from people who threatened themselves or others, and some sheriffs in the state refused to participate. “In Germany prior to WWII we saw Hitler place restrictions on the public’s right to bear arms,” wrote Sheriff Sharon Wehrly of Nye County (population 53,500), a member of Mack’s group, in a viral letter to the governor.

COVID-19, violence and the Republican Party

Many “Constitutional sheriffs” got their first taste of fame in early 2020, defiantly promising — via viral Facebook posts and Fox News appearances — to ignore statewide COVID-19 lockdown orders. (At the time, The Marshall Project found statements from 60 sheriffs across the country.) In an April 2020 Facebook post, at least one invoked Nazism again. Others spoke of budgets and staffing. In the survey, almost one-third of sheriffs said they chose not to enforce mask mandates, and some said this was because they didn’t have the resources to do so, regardless of their political views.

Since then, such rhetoric has continued to grow beyond Mack’s group. Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona (population 449,600), a conservative media star who is not officially a member, often uses similar language: “Our County Sheriffs are the last bastion of freedom against government overreach on a local and federal level,” reads the description of his 2020 book, “American Sheriff: Traditional Values in a Modern World.” 

“A lot of [Constitutional sheriff] talking points are squarely among the center of the Republican party now,” said Jessica Pishko, a former researcher at the University of South Carolina Law School and author of “The Highest Law in the Land,” a forthcoming book on sheriffs. She argued that Mack focuses on issues that are already popular on the right, rather than driving the agenda. 

Although Mack maintains the group is nonpartisan, his views have occasionally been a litmus test: In Colorado Springs this January, a moderator’s first question to Republican sheriff candidates was whether they were members of Mack’s group, and two of the five candidates said they were.

Like many Americans on the political right, some sheriffs also appear to be comfortable with violent political dissent. Nearly 30% of sheriffs who responded to the survey also clicked “agree” when confronted with a statement written by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” This is less than the total for the country as whole (36%), but these are law enforcement leaders who have the legal authority to use force themselves.

2021 U.S. sheriff survey results
The Marshall Project with Emily Farris (Texas Christian University) and Mirya Holman (Tulane University), 2021

At the same time, a libertarian streak in the Constitutional sheriff movement sometimes cuts against the law enforcement mainstream, and even brings them into common cause with progressives. This is clearest in the realm of “civil asset forfeiture.” In recent years, the National Sheriffs’ Association — a trade group of more than 14,000 members — ​​has supported efforts to make it easier for officers to seize money, drugs, guns and other items from suspects, even enlisting President Donald Trump in this effort. But Mack frequently criticizes the practice, and in the survey, almost half of the sheriffs who responded were critical of efforts to seize assets 5 before someone has been convicted of a crime. Half also said peoples’ assets should only be forfeited after they’ve been convicted.

Accusations of racism

Mack frequently faces the accusation that he promotes racist extremism. Among the speakers at his group’s training last year was Michael Peroutka, a lawyer and activist who once called “Dixie” the national anthem at a League of the South event, according to The Washington Post. Peroutka didn’t discuss race but said our government exists to preserve our “God-given rights” and, “If laws violate the 10 Commandments, they’re not law.” The Anti-Defamation League has documented Mack’s own appearances alongside white supremacists, but chalks them up to his “incessant need for an audience.” 

Farris and Holman have used the word “nativism” to describe statements on Mack’s organization’s website that “immigrants are not assimilating into our culture as they once did,” resulting in “devastating consequences culturally and economically.”

Mack himself is adamant about his opposition to racism. “My mother did not raise racists or bigots in her home,” he said. In addition to extolling Rosa Parks — he says an officer should have stepped in to protect her from racist policies — he has criticized sheriffs like Jim Clark of Alabama for attacking civil rights marches in the 1960s.

At the same time, Mack does admit to using race as a tool. At the Texas training, Mack led a round of applause for Larvita McFarquhar, a “modern day Rosa Parks” who refused to close her Minnesota restaurant in the early days of the pandemic. “You saw me use the Black lady as a prop,” he said later by phone.

Lately, Mack has reserved his ire for the FBI. He blamed the agency for a 1998 raid on his office, connected with a company he briefly worked for. He said the ensuing publicity derailed one of his political campaigns. (According to the Deseret News, he was not charged and the raid was likely connected to an associate’s activities.) In a CNN interview in August, he compared agents pursuing the Jan. 6 cases to Nazis. Mack later said he was referring to the post-World War II Nuremberg trials where officers defended their actions as a matter of following orders. Still, he has distanced himself from the events at the Capitol that day. “I told our people not to go to the rally on Jan. 6,” he said.

The sheriffs The Marshall Project surveyed were more likely to blame the events of Jan. 6 on antifa, as well as social media companies, than on Trump or Congressional Republicans.

2021 U.S. sheriff survey results
The Marshall Project with Emily Farris (Texas Christian University) and Mirya Holman (Tulane University), 2021

The question of ‘interposition’

Much of the debate around law enforcement and extremism centers on a single word with a long, fraught history: “interpose.” The word traces back to James Madison’s writings in the 1790s, but is largely tied to Southern states’ efforts to shield their schools from desegregation, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. (The court rejected these efforts in 1958.)

Mack uses the term to describe any scenario in which sheriffs step between their constituents and another law enforcement agency, and he framed it as an effort to de-escalate and reduce the risk of violence between law enforcement and civilians. “If we had officers who interposed, George Floyd would still be alive,” he said. “Interposition creates peace, it doesn’t create violence.” 

Not every sheriff agrees with Mack’s vision. Bill Benedict of Clallam County, Washington (population 78,200), called Mack a “snake oil salesman.”

“You don’t come with special powers to ignore the governor or the laws that the legislature passes,” he said.

Sheriff Kim Stewart of Doña Ana County, New Mexico (population 221,500), pointed out that many of her fellow sheriffs ask for money from the federal government for various initiatives while also espousing anti-federal rhetoric. “It’s ‘Whine, whine, whine, you’re not helping me,’ but [also] ‘Stay out of my backyard!’” she said. “Sorry, but no one gets it both ways. Not even sheriffs.”

Law professors have said Mack’s vision of the sheriff’s power has a weak basis in Constitutional law and can make it harder for legislatures and citizens to hold sheriffs accountable. “It creates a climate of entitlement, of being above the law, that can cause patterns of misconduct,” said Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor.

Sheriff Kim Stewart of Doña Ana County, New Mexico
It’s ‘Whine, whine, whine, you’re not helping me,’ but [also] ‘Stay out of my backyard!’ Sorry, but no one gets it both ways. Not even sheriffs.

Lopez previously worked at the Department of Justice under the Obama administration, investigating abuses by law enforcement, and said over time she noticed sheriffs growing less willing to voluntarily cooperate with her team to improve jail conditions. She argued that sheriffs used Mack’s rhetoric to convince Virginia lawmakers in 2020 to carve them out of a bill that would have increased civilian oversight of their departments.

And while Mack himself repeatedly disclaims violence, not all sheriffs believe the final implications of “interposition” will be peaceful, particularly when it comes to the Second Amendment. “Is it going to come down to my men facing off with a federal agency at gunpoint?” asked Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland (population 279,800). “I hope not.”

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Maurice Chammah is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. He can be reached at mchammah@themarshallproject.org or on Twitter at @MauriceChammah.

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