Until a reporter called, Grafton County Sheriff Doug Dutile said he had no idea his name is counted by an Arizona-based group as part of an "army" of sheriffs nationwide who will oppose any new federal gun laws.
Dutile is among 477 county sheriffs nationwide — the only one in New Hampshire — who have "vowed to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama's unconstitutional gun control measures," according to the website for the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA.org).
Dutile said he doesn't endorse some of the anti-government language on the CSPOA website, but he doesn't have a problem with being on that list.
When it comes to gun control, he said, "I honestly don't think we need more laws. We just need to fix, repair, tweak the ones we already have."
Dutile and other New Hampshire sheriffs point out they have no statutory authority to enforce federal laws anyway; that's up to the U.S. Marshals. But if Congress were to pass a law requiring confiscation of guns, Dutile said, he and his deputies would not assist federal agents.
"I don't think I have any statutory authority to stop them from coming, but I wouldn't participate in any of that activity, nor would any of my people," he said.
Some gun-rights and libertarian groups see the county sheriffs — as constitutional officers elected by the people — as the last line of defense in a showdown over constitutional rights.
Here's how the CSPOA puts it on its website: "The county sheriff is the line in the sand. The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, 'Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.' This is not only within the scope of the sheriff's authority; it's the sheriff's sworn duty.'"
But Dutile said he has no intention of battling federal agents if Congress were to pass new gun laws. In New Hampshire, and especially in the North Country, he said, local, state, county and federal law enforcement agencies work closely, and well, together.
"If the feds want to come in and enforce some of their laws in my county, that's entirely up to them. I'm not going to get in their way. In fact, I may even assist them."
But, he said, "If you're talking new laws, that's totally different. I'd have to see the new law before I want to comment on that."
Sheriffs around the country are finding themselves under increasing pressure to make such declarations as the rhetorical battle between gun-rights defenders and gun-control advocates has heated up.
After a mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school last December, the White House announced 23 executive actions to reduce gun violence, such as providing training for first responders and school personnel. And while none called for restrictions on gun ownership, the move sparked a powerful backlash from gun-rights supporters.
The New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition sent letters to all 10 county sheriffs here, asking their positions on gun rights.
"Will you promise the people of your county that you will not enforce unconstitutional gun laws or participate in confiscation programs?" Jane Aitken of Bedford, one of the group's founders, asked in her letter.
"Will you keep the government from turning the citizens of New Hampshire into criminals due to the unconstitutional actions of a few misguided politicians?"
Aitken said she was "dismayed and distressed" that only two county sheriffs replied to her letter: Dutile and Coos County Sheriff Gerald Marcou Jr. And she said Dutile was the only sheriff who outright said he will oppose any new gun-control laws.
"I said to all my friends who live in Grafton, 'You're lucky; your sheriff is on your side,'" Aitken said.
Marcou told the New Hampshire Sunday News he refuses to speculate about what he would do if Congress were to pass new gun-control measures. "I would have to see what they come up with for a law," he said.
"I can tell you this much: I will not be taking guns from any of the citizens of the state of New Hampshire."
But Marcou said he thinks some are "jumping the gun" by worrying about firearms confiscation, something he said is "never going to happen."
"It's an unenforceable law if they think you're going to take guns from people in any state," he said. "If they've ever committed a crime, different story. But just a plain citizen that hasn't committed a crime? You'll never see it in our lifetime."
If new gun laws were to pass that Marcou felt he couldn't carry out, he said, "I would have to resign from office."
"I have my own personal opinions, but as a public official, if the state of New Hampshire says this is the law, we have to enforce that law. It's up to the state legislators to change that law."
The New Hampshire Sheriff's Association has posted a statement affirming gun rights: "The 10 high sheriffs of New Hampshire have always and continue to be strong supporters of the Second Amendment, and the rights of law abiding citizens to keep and bear arms."
The sheriffs called for increasing access to mental health services; vigorously prosecuting those who commit crimes with firearms; enhancing school security measures; and "closing background check loopholes." That combined approach is the most effective way to keep communities safe and one that "will not violate the constitutional rights of honest, law-abiding citizens," the NHSA stated.
The National Sheriffs Association issued its own resolution on Feb. 1. The group, which represents all the nation's sheriffs, strongly supports the right to bear arms and does not support "any laws that deprive any citizen of the rights provided under the Constitution and Bill of Rights," it stated.
But it also stated that sheriffs "do not possess the legal authority to interpret the constitutionality of any law." That's up to the courts, the NSA said.
Must uphold laws
Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard is president of the New Hampshire sheriffs group. As a law enforcement officer, he said, "Your sworn duty is to enforce the laws which are passed by the people through their representatives, i.e., the Legislature."
A Republican and strong defender of Second Amendment rights, Hilliard said his job is to represent all the people, including those he may disagree with. He said calls by groups such as the CSPOA for sheriffs to oppose new federal laws "are the kinds of things that inflame people."
"They're saying that we have the authority as sheriffs not to carry out those things that we might not agree with. I disagree with that," Hilliard said.
"We raise our hands and take an oath of office, and the oath of office is to carry out the laws and Constitution of the state of New Hampshire, so help me God."
If there were legislation he opposed, Hilliard said, "I would be standing on the State House steps telling my representatives I don't agree with you.
As for the CSPOA's call for an "army" of sheriffs to oppose the federal government, Marcou said that's not going to happen in New Hampshire. "We're not going to be fighting each other. Law enforcement is law enforcement.
"We're here to protect the public. We are not going to be setting up barriers between federal and state government. Not in the state of New Hampshire."
But Aitken, from the N.H. Tea Party Coalition, said the obligation to defend the Constitution should come first. "Not all laws are constitutional; in fact, most of them probably are not," she said.
"This is New Hampshire," Aitken said. "We're an open-carry state. We have great pro-Second-Amendment laws. And we only have one sheriff that says he's going to uphold the Constitution."