In urging law enforcement leaders to back new gun control efforts, President Barack Obama is asking police chiefs and county sheriffs to unite behind a cause they don't even agree about among themselves.
Obama said Monday that he was seeking a "basic consensus" among law enforcement executives to pressure Congress for legislation to ban assault-style weapons and restrict high-capacity ammunition magazines, among a score of other measures.
But it turns out the two national groups representing police and sheriffs at a meeting of law enforcement officials Monday at the White House — the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs Association — disagree on the initiative. The chiefs back it, while the sheriffs oppose it.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, president of the police chiefs group, said the deaths of 20 students and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month had settled the issue.
"If the slaughter of 20 babies does not capture and hold your attention, then I give up, because I don't know what else will," Ramsey said last week. "We have to pass legislation."
But in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden (.pdf), who is leading the White House lobbying effort, the sheriffs group argued that "a ban on assault weapons alone will not address the issues of gun violence we are facing in our country today."
Nor would limiting magazine capacity, it said: "The problem is not the law-abiding citizen that will follow the restrictions; the problem again is one of access. ... (E)ven if you can’t buy in bulk, you can still buy multiple boxes of smaller quantities."
Similarly, the International Association of Chiefs of Police said in a position paper (.pdf) that it was "a strong supporter of the assault weapons ban" and measures to limit ammunition capacity. But the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association applauded what it called efforts to "uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama's unlawful gun control measures."
Chiefs vs. sheriffs
The divide reflects a cultural and political gulf between police chiefs and sheriffs in a number of areas, criminal justice experts told NBC News.
Police chiefs run departments in cities where most gun crimes take place, according to FBI crime statistics over the past decade. Sheriffs run departments in counties, some or all of their jurisdictions covering rural areas where hunting and sport shooting are cherished rights. As a result, "you have these wildly different views of guns," said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
In counties, particularly heavily rural ones, "guns equal hunting, fishing, father-and-son-bonding-type things," he said, while in cities, "guns equal crime."
Those community views have real political effects, according to Kleck and another expert, Scott H. Decker, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"The big difference is a sheriff is elected and has to face the voters every four years," Decker said, but police chiefs are almost always appointed.
"If you're a police chief, you're not responsible to an electorate," Kleck said, and are therefore more free to advocate for politically unpopular policies like bans on certain kinds of weapons.
Sheriffs vs. sheriffs
Decker suggested that there was likely to be a broad range of opinion among sheriffs, because it's not just elections that keep them in touch with community sentiment. Because they have more varied duties — running jails and patrolling areas that can include rural, suburban and urban communities, all in the same county — their jurisdictions range across populations with widely different political views on guns.
So while many sheriffs say they wouldn't enforce new federal gun control laws, there are other sheriffs who call those sheriffs misguided.
Last week, Milwaukee County (Wis.) Sheriff David Clarke issued a public service announcement urging residents to learn how to handle a firearm "so you can defend yourself until we get there."
"With officers laid off and furloughed, simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option," Clarke says in the spot, which you can listen to here.
Just a few counties over, Ron Cramer, sheriff of Eau Claire County, objected that Clarke was sending the wrong message.
Clarke could have gotten across his point that residents could take more responsibility for their own safety "without having to say it's time to join our team and pick up a gun," Cramer told NBC station WEAU of Eau Claire.