Sunday, April 14, 2024

Pender ‘gun sanctuary county’ resolution on hold after public opposition, division among commissioners

At Monday's Board of Commissioners meeting, a controversial resolution pitted individual gun rights against public safety and the adherence to state and federal laws. Those who spoke against the resolution also asked why the commissioners were not more focused on recovery from Hurricane Florence.

Pender County resident Frank Dalato argues against the resolution to establish Pender as a "gun sanctuary county". (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Democrat John Johnson, who last November lost the race for N.C. House District 16 to Carson Smith, argues against the resolution to establish Pender as a “gun sanctuary county.” (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — A contentious debate between residents and Pender County commissioners early Monday evening ended in a unanimous decision by the board to table a controversial resolution that would declare Pender a “gun sanctuary county.”

Copied from a resolution by Cherokee County, passed last month as a growing number of mainly rural counties across the U.S. adopted similar measures, Chairman George Brown conceded that the agenda item was not properly vetted before publication on the county’s website.

Commissioners were divided, although each confirmed support of the Second Amendment; Jackie Newton and Fred McCoy would not support the resolution in any form, while Brown, David Williams, and David Piepmeyer suggested amending the largely symbolic document to remove “gun sanctuary” from its name and strike its final paragraph — a controversial statement that fueled the opposition’s arguments.

READ MORE: Pender Chairman on ‘gun sanctuary’ resolution against infringement of Second Amendment rights

The document lists 18 statements of truth “on behalf of the citizens of Pender County” outlining key elements of the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms. It concludes by resolving that commissioners will not authorize or appropriate government funds, resources, or employees for the purpose of enforcing any laws that infringe on that right.

“I will support no part of this,” Newton said, calling it unnecessary and frivolous. “In my opinion, we convene as the Board of County Commissioners to run the business of the county, not to dictate the politics of our citizens. This is an issue, as I see it, of individual rights versus public safety. To coin ourselves as a ‘gun sanctuary’ is a slap in the face to everyone who has lost a family member or a loved one in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, night clubs, theaters, and churches across this country.”

Newton then cited a Supreme Court decision in 2008 when Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that the Second Amendment does not guarantee unlimited gun rights, and must fairly balance the rights of individuals with the issues of public safety.

Both Williams and Piepmeyer argued that Pender’s long history as a rural county meant that most of its residents still supported gun rights. When asked by a resident if the commissioners had relied on any data to measure the general opinions of the county’s population, Williams said none was needed.

“I don’t need data to tell me that the majority of folks in Pender County support the Second Amendment,” Williams said. “This room wouldn’t have nearly as many people if it didn’t say ‘Gun Sanctuary’ and it didn’t have that last paragraph.”

“This was and still largely is a rural county, so guns have been important to the protection of people and their families in the past,” Piepmeyer said.

The opposition speaks

All nine residents who spoke publicly voiced opposition to the resolution, asking why commissioners were not focused instead on post-Florence recovery, road and school improvements, and continuing to build up a growing tourism industry — which some argued would be threatened by the divisive, controversial nature of a “gun sanctuary county.”

“How about we make sure we see no more blue tarps before the next hurricane season starts?” asked activist Samantha Worrell.

“Consider how partisan this resolution is, and how you will divide us,” former chair of the Pender County Democratic Party Debbie Fintak said. 

Nancy Kurul from Rocky Point suggested the resolution would lead to confusion of whether county employees will enforce new gun control laws, such as President Trump’s ban on “bump stock” attachments that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire rapidly. Last Thursday the Supreme Court rejected the latest attempt by gun rights activists to block the measure.

Pender County resident Frank Dalato argues against the resolution to establish Pender as a "gun sanctuary county". (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Those opposing the resolution applaud after a Pender County resident walks back to his seat after making a two-minute public argument. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

In the hallway outside the assembly room, newly elected Sheriff Alan Cutler did not support or oppose the resolution, saying only that his duty was to uphold national and state laws.

“I swore in my oath to support the Constitution of the United States and North Carolina. That’s what I came to do. I don’t write the laws — I didn’t even have a vote in there tonight,” Cutler said.

Pender native John Johnson, a Democrat who lost the N.C. House District 16 seat to former sheriff Carson Smith last November, said the proposed resolution was dangerous — “it conjures up language of the Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, Texas” where four ATF officers were killed while executing a search warrant related to illegal weapons violations — and portrayed the wrong image of the county.

As a self-determined gun sanctuary we may be viewed as a lawless backwater community where armed residents must by necessity enforce their own interpretation of personal safety and individual sovereignty by means of their own personal arsenal,” Johnson said. “I respectfully urge you to immediately reject and disavow this poorly advised and foolish resolution.”

Tabled for future discussion

After public arguments, Newton asked, “Who brought this resolution? How did it come to be before us?”

When no commissioner answered, Newton argued that a discussion among commissioners last week indicated that the resolution was “premature and ill-advised.” 

Piepmeyer said the two sides were at an impasse, with not enough support on each side to either move an amended resolution forward or strike it down entirely. The commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider the issue at an unspecified future date.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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