A sheriff who’s vocally opposed to stricter gun control legislation and has been linked to a fringe “constitutional sheriffs” organization found himself thrust into the spotlight Thursday following a deadly mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon.
Douglas County, Oregon Sheriff John Hanlin told CNN’s Chris Cuomo Friday morning on “New Day” that he was focused on investigating the shooting, in which a 26-year-old gunman massacred at least nine people and injured several others, rather than on talking about his position on the gun control debate.
When Cuomo pointed out that Hanlin previously said gun laws aren’t the answer to mass shootings, the sheriff responded: “I want to stay focused on completing this investigation and focus on the families of the victims The discussion over firearms and control of firearms will occur. I’ll dime in at a later time but now is not that time.”
Cuomo cited a 2013 letter Hanlin wrote to Vice President Joe Biden asking him to preserve the Second Amendment and informing him that Hanlin would refuse to enforce “unconstitutional regulations or orders”—meaning executive actions on gun control—in Douglas County. The letter came a month after the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, when Washington was abuzz with talk of enacting stricter gun control measures.
“Gun control is NOT the answer to preventing heinous crimes like school shootings,” Hanlin wrote in the letter. “Any actions against, or in disregard for our U.S. Constitution and 2nd Amendment rights by the current administration would be irresponsible and an indisputable insult to the American people.”
Afterward, Hanlin was one of hundreds of sheriffs cited by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) as a law enforcement official who “vowed to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama’s unconstitutional gun control measures.” The CSPOA, founded by former Graham County, Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, is like the loosely-organized militia group Oath Keepers in that its members tout an oath to “uphold and defend” the Constitution.
It was unclear if Hanlin was a member of CSPOA. Mack did not immediately respond to a request for comment from TPM.
Hanlin, a 26-year veteran of the force in his second term as sheriff, has spoken out against gun control measures at the state level as well. He was one of several sheriffs who testified before Oregon legislators in April and urged them to reject SB 941, a bill that would expand background checks to gun sales and transfers:
“This law is not going to protect citizens of Oregon, in that it is going to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It will not do that,” he said. “We have laws that prohibit the possession of other things, like methamphetamine, and it doesn’t stop it.”
Hanlin added that because of budget constraints it would be “nearly impossible” for his agency to enforce the expanded background checks. But the bill ultimately passed and was signed into law by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) in May.
Cuomo, the CNN anchor, repeatedly pressed Hanlin on those previous stances against gun control legislation after the sheriff declined to address the issue.
“Why am I pushing you on this, sheriff?” Cuomo said. “It’s not because I don’t want to respect the victims. It’s because you’ve weighed in on it in the past. I want to know if your perspective is different now that you’re knee deep in one of these situations than just being someone who’s seeing it from abroad.”
“Well, my position on it has not changed,” Hanlin responded.
“So you still believe that it’s not about gun laws, it’s not about uniform background checks,” Cuomo pressed. “None of those things would help, sir?”
“Again, I want to stay focused on this investigation and the welfare of the community and the welfare of the families and the victims in this horrific incident,” Hanlin responded. “I’m not going to waste the time today, or any time in the real near future, having the firearm debate.”
Watch part of the exchange between Hanlin and Cuomo below:
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.