Tevlin: Sheriff's gun sentiments are up for debate

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2013 - 6:37 PM

Since Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole issued a statement last week that he would not enforce any new gun mandates from the federal government, constituents and public officials have responded with reactions ranging from praise, to puzzlement, to anger.

Cole, in his first term, said on Friday that positive responses were running 50-1. He said he spoke out only after being asked by several people what he would do if President Obama created by act or mandate stricter gun laws. He then sent his answer to many media outlets.

Here's part of what he wrote:

"I believe current state law is sufficient to protect the public safety while providing individuals the right to keep and bear arms.

"I do not believe the Federal Government or any individual in the Federal Government has the right to dictate to the states, counties or municipalities any mandate, regulation or administrative rule that violates the United States Constitution or its various amendments. I would view any such mandate, regulation or administrative rule illegal and refuse to carry it out."

While Cole certainly got attention -- even nationally -- the whole incident is somewhat bizarre because of this fact:

"He is basically saying, 'I'm not going to enforce something I don't have the authority to enforce," said Richard Hodsdon, legal counsel for the Minnesota Sheriff's Association. "County sheriffs don't have the legal authority to enforce federal laws. There would have to be corresponding state law."

Cole is one of several sheriffs nationwide to make similar comments. Some of them are members of a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which considers itself "the last line of defense" against the federal government.

Cole said on Friday that he was aware of the group but not a member. When asked if he agreed with the belief of the group that his position overrides that of any federal agent in his jurisdiction and whether they need his permission to act in Pine County, he said, "Philosophically, I would."

Hodsdon, however, called Cole's assumption of power over federal agents "a false notion."

These sheriffs "are kind of confused about the law," Hodsdon said. "They hear the rhetoric and just repeat it."

Cole said he rarely makes political statements but felt he had to in this case because the issue "transcends political division." Should the state change gun laws, Cole said he would enforce them.

State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was one of those who saw Cole's action as an attention-getting device that means little but plays to gun-loving constituents.

"This whole thing was a political statement, which is his right, but I worry the sheriff is sending a dangerous message that he's holding himself above federal law," said Latz, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"What's most troubling to me has nothing to do with guns," Latz said. "It has to do with this notion that the sheriff is announcing to his entire constituency that he is willing to ignore any federal mandates because, as judge, he has decided he doesn't agree with them."

Cole, a former Minneapolis cop, is seen by some in Pine County as a bit of a rogue cowboy. Some jokingly call him "King Cole." He has been criticized by some public officials for buying leather jackets and Stetson hats for his deputies and for spending money on training out of state without permission of the county board.

"I don't work for the county," he said in response.

Cole was fired from his job as a deputy in the department he now leads. He filed a whistleblower suit against the county and previous sheriff in 2008 and won, then ran for sheriff and was elected.

The previous sheriff, Mark Mansavage, called Cole's remarks "totally inappropriate" and a way of fostering an image of "someone who can't be told what to do. It's all about him."

One fan is Carol Serafin, another former Minneapolis cop who lives in the county. "I think he's done some good things," Serafin said. "He inherited a nightmare."

Doug Carlson, a county board member, worries, however, whether Cole's philosophies would make the county liable if he refused to carry out orders he doesn't like. "We can't be seen as a bunch of Lone Rangers," he said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek understands Cole's political rhetoric, but he said that "you can decide to take a hard-line stand against the federal government or, like me and other sheriffs, decide to be part of a workable solution to gun violence."

Cole said he has opinions on suggested changes to gun laws but will keep them private. He did offer, however, that the Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment "not for hunting, but to defend the populace from a tyrannical government. That's not up for debate." Cole said gun-permit applications have soared so much in the county that officials have had to work overtime to process them. "That's fear," Cole said. "People are buying guns because the perception is something is up."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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