Dozens of townships and counties in N.J. and Pa. are becoming ‘sanctuaries’ for gun owners
The gun sanctuary movement has been fueled by the passage of “red flag laws” by more than a dozen states that allow law enforcement officers to temporarily confiscate guns from owners deemed a threat or a danger to themselves or others.
In the parts of Cape May County most tourists just pass through, closer to the bay than the boardwalks, some residents remember when bearing arms was as common as carrying a fishing pole.
“We all used to go hunting after school or after work, carrying a shotgun down the street,” said North Cape May resident Gary Cusick. “That was an acceptable way of life.”
A growing number of people like Cusick in townships and counties across the country believe their gun rights are being threatened, particularly by recent adoptions of state “red flag laws” allowing law enforcement officers to temporarily confiscate guns from owners deemed a threat or a danger to themselves or others. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, guns have been seized from nearly 200 people in New Jersey since the state passed its red flag law in September.
More than a dozen states, including Delaware but not Pennsylvania, have enacted similar laws. And in response, hundreds of municipalities nationwide have come up with resolutions in recent months declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries for gun owners. On Tuesday night, Atlantic County freeholders voted 6-2 in favor of such a measure — joining Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties in South Jersey.
“You will have blood on your hands,” one audience member warned, according to an account in the Press of Atlantic City.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal, in a letter sent to all county prosecutors, said there are two forms of gun sanctuary resolutions. One says, basically, that the local elected officials disapprove of certain state gun laws and want legislators to change them. He characterized the second version as the “more extreme,” calling for law enforcement officers to stop “enforcing such firearm laws entirely.”
The resolutions, Grewal said, have no legal standing.
“My real concern,” he wrote in his letter, “is that these so-called sanctuary resolutions will confuse otherwise law-abiding residents, who may incorrectly believe that they no longer have to comply with firearm safety laws, including carry laws and prohibitions on assault weapons, ghost guns [guns made or bought without serial numbers], or large-capacity magazines.”
Will Cunningham, a chief investigator on the House Oversight Committee and one of many Democratic primary candidates hoping to unseat U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey’s Second Congressional District, called the sanctuaries “ridiculous.” A Vineland, Cumberland County, native, he noted that Jersey Shore communities depend on tourism dollars.
“Tourists coming in from Philadelphia, coming in from other parts of the country, when they hear ‘gun sanctuary,’ they may think open carry, unfettered rights,” Cunningham said. “It makes people think twice.”
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Tourists spend more than $7 billion annually in Atlantic County, more than any other county in New Jersey, according to a 2019 state report. Cape May County is second, at more than $6 billion a year. Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director, referred all questions about the gun sanctuary to the freeholders. E. Marie Hayes, a freeholder and retired detective with the county prosecutor’s office, said the tourism department has received exactly one call about the gun sanctuary.
“I would want tourists to know they are as safe today as they were before,” Hayes said.
Red-flag laws have stalled in Pennsylvania, but gun-rights groups there aren’t waiting around. Bradford, Sullivan, Huntingdon, Cambria, and Bedford Counties have passed gun sanctuary resolutions, said Val W. Finnell, the Pennsylvania director for Gun Owners of America. Fayette County will be the first to draft what he described as an “ordinance” prohibiting county employees from enforcing any “unlawful act” passed by the state legislature “regarding personal firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition.”
Buffalo Township in Union County and West Manheim Township in York County have passed versions of the ordinance, according to Finnell. Conoy Township in Lancaster County is looking into becoming a gun sanctuary.
Marybeth Christiansen, a volunteer with Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action, said the measures are an “insult to survivors of gun violence.”
“Local authorities simply do not have the legal authority to reject state and federal gun safety laws. They can’t pick and choose which laws are valid,” Christiansen said in a statement. “These resolutions and ordinances are dangerous, sow confusion, foster distrust of law enforcement, and expose local authorities to costly litigation.”
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In South Jersey, dozens of municipalities have passed resolutions, including rural Maurice River Township in Cumberland County, where Donald Trump flags abound. Mayor J. Roy Oliver, 71, said 58% of his municipality is open land, and that the state’s red flag law threatens a certain way of life there.
“We have two or three gun clubs,” Oliver said. “We just wanted to make sure this rite of passage that’s passed on from father to son continues. We don’t want some guy in Trenton destroying that.”
Mark Cheeseman, a Gloucester County gun owner who has helped champion the movement in New Jersey, said the word “sanctuary” is not a reference to “sanctuary cities,” where law enforcement and elected officials limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“We are not asking people to break the law,” he said. “We don’t want people to get the wrong idea, that they can walk around with a gun without a permit.”
In Atlantic County, Sandy Hickerson said she bought a 9 mm handgun, took a safety course at a local range, and “fell in love with the sport of shooting.” In 2018, she had to change out her handgun’s magazine after state lawmakers reduced the capacity limit from 15 to 10. That’s when she grew interested in gun rights.
“That’s not going to help solve any type of gun violence,” Hickerson, an Absecon resident, said before the freeholders’ vote on Tuesday night. “We all know that a criminal doesn’t follow the laws.”
Hickerson said safety concerns compelled her to purchase her handgun.
“There’s no man in the house,” she said, “and God forbid if something happens, I need to protect my mom.”