Five Spy Questions for Easton’s Y-Talks with Liza Ledford

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It was good news to hear that Easton’s YMCA this year that launching a lecture program. Y’s are famous for presenting speakers and interesting topics to communities, with perhaps famous being the legendary 92nd Street Y in New York City, now going on their 140th years.

We tracked down Liza Ledford, the event producer of Y-Talks, last week to answer a few questions the Spy had about the program and some background information

Talbot Spy (TS): First off, tell us a bit more about the Y Talks at the YMCA in Easton?

Liza Ledford (LL): The “Y Talks” speaker series was successfully produced in the Easton branch in the spring of 2014. The weekly series ran for three months and became a well branded program gaining momentum and audience attendance. The goal is to keep that momentum by adding a new speaker each month. Starting September 19th off every third Friday of the month at 7pm for 12 months at the Easton Family YMCA in the Thomas E. Hill Center for Youth Development, also known as the Teen Center.

TS: What was your inspiration for starting the program?

LL: The program was designed by Tom Hill and Shar McBee as a way to add community conversations to the new space at the Easton YMCA. There is a big fireplace that welcomes people to enjoy the warm environment together, while learning about amazing people we have in our community. It originally started when Tom and Shar were discussing the many residents of Talbot County that have very interesting stories and lead very interesting lives. Inviting them to come share their stories with our community brings us all closer and is very unique to our area. Talbot County also produces many events and sometimes we can capitalize on a visiting guest to share their stories with us.

TS: What kind of guests can people expect to see at a “Y-Talk”

Natasha Kermani

Natasha Kermani

LL: The guests will vary in type, but will all share the quality of being successful in their field. We have artists, politicians, writers, journalists, land developers, health industry leaders etc… The first one in the new “Y-Talks” on Friday, Sept. 19th features a young Iranian filmmaker, Natasha Kermani who is in town for the Chesapeake Film Festival.

She will share what her journey has been like moving up in the film and TV industry, being a woman in the industry and how it is now living in Brooklyn NY. Also, her insights on why she feels coming to a film festival in Talbot County is valuable to her career and why doing local talks adds to her story.

TS: What’s next for Y Talks?

Nick Panuzio

Nick Panuzio

Well, in October, we hear from Nick Panuzi who now lives in St. Michaels, but was a close advisor to President Gerald Ford. He tells of being in the administration that brought our men home from Vietnam. He also was charged with many construction and land development initiatives and his story is profound with insights on how he was concerned with the public’s welfare from a Federal government position. For November we are looking to secure a Chef and for the December topic, looking at Holiday Decorating experts.

TS: Finally, how do you select the topics and can people find out about them?

It is interesting, but sometimes we are referred to someone that has an amazing story and that dictates the topic, or the month is already topic driven like the Holidays. It is hard to limit them to twelve “Y-Talks” for the year because we have a wealth of amazing speakers that offer such intimate conversations. My hope is to add additional talks if many people attend and the series gains a loyal audience. There are just so many good stories to share.

The list of speakers will be at the Easton Family YMCA front desk, as well as the website. We certainly send press releases and list them in area community calendars, and of course the Talbot Spy. At each “Y Talk” we will announce the next one as well. And please know these were designed to bring the community together and we welcome any topic or guest suggestions. For more information or to sign up for Y Talks, please contact the Easton Family YMCA at 410-822-0566 or stop by the Welcome Center–cost is $12 per person per session.

Spy Chat with Health Integrity President Sandy Love on Their New Home

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While there might be mild disappointment that the shiny new addition to Marlboro Avenue behind Target in Easton is not the much anticipated Harris Teeter food store, there remains good reason to celebrate. The County’s fourth largest business, Health Integrity, and its philanthropic wing, the Delmarva Foundation, will be moving many of their 230 employees into their digs next Monday.

Rather than relocate off the Eastern Shore, Health Integrity decided to stay put, which means good things to Talbot County’s economy. With most of their employees having advanced degrees, as well as experience as nurses, computer analysts, and law enforcement, those high paying jobs add considerably to the local economy.

But what exactly does Health Integrity do? That’s the question the Spy posed to their president Sandy Love earlier this week.

This video is approximately five minutes long

Suicide on the Shore: The Dark Side of the Moon


suicide-best300Some years ago my friend Sarah and I went on a leisurely canoe trip along the shores of the Wye River. The locusts buzzed in the fields and the July air was dense as wet gauze. We would stop paddling and drift. At one point she turned around, sat, and wanted to talk. She talked music most of the time. She was 34, a gifted solo musician and had made half a million dollars from her very first recorded song.

I knew her enough to know that she never used drugs. And, as for alcohol, she was one of those people who’d rather sip and stare at a glass of wine rather than drink it. At worst —or so I thought at the time—she wrestled with the kind of mild doubt and insecurity that in a healthy context of self-observation can fuel artists as “arguments with God.”

As we dragged our hands in the tepid river, Sarah asked, “so what do you think about suicide?” I shook my head. We’d had intense conversations before about the cardinal events that take place in human life, so we launched into it full bore.

Is suicide selfish? Can it be a fully informed, rational decision or is it always the result of mental illness?

I think we got as far as considering suicide an “illness that complicates thinking and feeling even though it sometimes appeared to be a rational decision.” Our default position was that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem even if we didn’t know the problem.

We were fishing in the dark, of course, but artists fish in the dark for subjects to unveil. Besides, it was just a philosophical discussion on a hot afternoon and it was clear that we wouldn’t be challenging Albert Camus anytime soon.

We’d heard about the terminally ill taking their lives and decided that we could not judge. We’d heard about teenagers taking their lives, but surmised that they were ill equipped to deal with sudden emotional trauma.

We agreed that while some people appeared to have planned their deaths, there seemed to be much impulsivity in many acts of suicide— but wasn’t some type of mental illness still operating in the background? One just doesn’t jump off a cliff without a cauldron of depression, addiction or some other mental affliction bubbling in the background, do they?

Neither of us had known anyone personally who had committed suicide. Our guesswork ended at a locked door, with no key. Strangely, we thought, we could identify suicide only by the trauma it left behind — that terrifying jolt like lightning too close, and the widening sphere of shock and grief of those affected.

We drifted a while and paddled back to the dock. A recording company had contracted Sarah and their rep was waiting for her to deliver the goods. She was amped on promise and exhilaration as she stood on a precipice of creative possibilities and wondered if she had the wings for this next challenge.

Four months later, Sarah committed suicide.

First there was the gut-wrenching shock and the primal despair that shreds language down to a few syllables of anger, guilt and bewilderment. All of her friends searched through emails, recalled conversations, theorized and tried to solve the puzzle of our grief.

None of us found satisfactory answers. We knew she’d been somewhat despondent over a relationship issue, and that big decisions like house purchases didn’t come easy, but who among us had never felt the undertow of depression?

We were looking for a shred of light on the dark side of the moon.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) one million people attempt it each year and 40,000 people complete the act. That would be the entire population of Talbot County. Each year. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 people worldwide end their lives annually.

Just days ago, WHO’s Director Margaret Chan was quoted in a Reuters article for, as saying that the WHO’s report—prepared for world suicide prevention day on September 10—is “a call for action to address a large public health problem which has been a taboo for far too long.”

Globally, and in the US, the demographic most vulnerable for suicide is the 70+ age group, but for the 15-29-year bracket, suicide is the second leading cause of death.

According to the report, men die by suicide more than women and that in more affluent countries three times as many men kill themselves as women.

Can effective prevention measures take place? The answer is yes.

Like addiction and mental illness, the taboo of discussing suicide are still powerful roadblocks, but talk and listen we must, especially to those we feel might be vulnerable.

Suicide is complex. One anecdote and one article can hardly knock on the door of the subject. We jump to conclusions—”he (or she) just lost her job,” etc.—and overly simplify. Studies indicate that psychiatric illnesses and/or substance abuse are powerful influences in 90% of suicides.

Gerald Beemer, licensed clinical professional counselor at UM Shore Regional Health, believes that in addition to the complexity of someone’s state of mental health, therapists can overlook a key element in identifying a person’s vulnerability to suicide.

“I think it’s important to find out if, during their developmental years, there has been a family suicide. This can turn out to be a joker in the emotional deck of cards and they might not even know it’s there until triggered,” Beemer says.

Beemer explains that part of what we learn during our adolescent years is the interpretation of other people’s responses to life events. We learn from how they react. If a family member commits suicide, the experience can be filed away without context or understanding.

“It’s how they deal with the joker later in life that becomes critical. If at some point a person experiences a crisis—a breakup, the loss of a child, the loss of a home with all their possessions—causing a depression, and the joker pops up as a solution to their pain, then we have a very dangerous situation,” he notes.

Psychiatric geneticists are looking at suicidal behavior as patterns running in families; major suicide studies also point to childhood abuse as a key risk factor. Like a soldier’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), childhood abuse can cause changes in brain chemistry that regulate stress and leave the brain in a heightened stress-sensitive state.

Abusing alcohol and/or drugs also play a dangerous part in increasing the risk of suicide. About the younger side of the 15-29 year old age group, Beemer pulls no punches. “Young people’s brains are not ready for alcohol and it makes suicide easier by lowering inhibitions and allowing riskier behavior. That and the easy access to weapons can make for a deadly combination.”

Among the elderly, studies have discovered a unique constellation of “reasons” suicide is contemplated. The American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry finds that older Americans blame health issues, disability, anguish over a lost loved one and financial difficulties as causing their depression. One New York study suggested that treating depression alone might not be enough without understanding the unique problems facing older adults.


There are warning signs of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline publishes this list:

• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden on others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings

(Note: The more these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.)

What you should do:

• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or other sharp objects that could be used.
• Call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
• Take the person to the ER or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Think of it. We live in a world of advanced science and medicine, breakthroughs and advancements in mental health applications and yet, since the early 1940s the US suicide rate has done nothing but rise across the demographic spectrum, especially among active duty soldiers and the middle-aged (30 percent!). Despite what we know about warning signs, we usually have no clue when someone else has decided there is no other way out of his or her anguish.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of six seconds only when that impulse hits,” Beemer says.

Getting to the vulnerable before that impulse is acted upon and safeguarding them with correct diagnosis and mental health or addiction support is the key.

And there is a growing movement dedicated to getting the word out nationally.

On Saturday, September 6, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in partnership with Mid-Shore Mental Health System’s Defeating Stigma Coalition and Queen Anne’s County Partnership for Suicide Prevention hosted an “Out of the Darkness” fundraising community walk on Kent Island’s Cross Island Trail. More than 500 people made the 3.5-mile walk to honor the lives of family members and friends who had committed suicide, along with mental health professionals and individuals who felt the need to help make a difference.

“I just heard about it today and wanted to support the effort to talk openly about suicide and erase the stigma surrounding it. I lost my beloved uncle and I’m tired of his death being a shameful family secret when we could further our understanding of mental health issues by discussing it,” said Annapolis resident Carol Brinner.

There are many local resources. One of the most immediate is Eastern Shore Mobile Crisis Team, a service of the affiliated Santé Group.

As mental health first responders, the team provides emergency psychological assessment, immediate intervention for individuals and family.

“We have a clinician available 24/7 to talk to people in crisis. They can be people with suicidal thoughts, substance abuse or mental health issues. Our Mobile Crisis team can go on site to help individuals in crisis and we can do that between 9 a.m. and midnight, seven days a week,” says Director Carol Masden.

Eastern Shore Mobile Crisis provides service for all nine counties on the Shore. Madsen says that Kent County’s loss of Upper shore Mental Health spurred a strong community advocacy for services and the state responded with funding for the crisis service. ESMC’s Hotline is 1-888-407-8018. The Spy will be interviewing Carol at a later date.

Mid-Shore mental Health Systems, Inc. also provide a 24/7 Crisis Hotline at 1-888-407-8018

Eastern Shore Operations Center (ESOC) Serves as the behavioral health emergent, urgent and information and referral call center for all nine counties of the Eastern Shore:  Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Talbot, Wicomico and Worcester Counties.  The ESOC is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assess and respond to calls from consumers, family members, community members, businesses and human services agencies.  ESOC staff provides linkage to community resources through referral to all appropriate and existing behavioral health and human services.

Life Crisis Center Hotline Provides counseling for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, suicide prevention, support groups, emergency shelter, shelter referral, medical care, and assistance with the process of prosecution. 1-800-422-0009 or 410-749-HELP

Suicide Hotline Provides counseling for suicide prevention 1-800-SUICIDE or 410-742-9424
Youth Hotline Crisis intervention, support and referrals 1-800-422-0009

For more about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, go here.

Here are a few minutes from the “Out of the Darkness” community walk on Kent Island, September 6, 2014.

Profile: The Shore’s Johnny O’Brien and Milton Hershey’s School

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If the maxim that luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation is true, long time Eastern Shore resident John (Johnny) O’Brien has had more than his fair share of stars lining up in his favor.

Shipwrecked, as it were, at the very outset of his life at the age of three, Johnny O’Brien arrived with his five-year-old brother, Frankie, at the Pennsylvania candy maker Milton Hershey’s legendary school for orphans under the worst of circumstances. After a family tragedy had taken away his parents under horrific circumstances, Johnny, as he notes in his interview with the Spy, arrived like “soiled laundry” by his aunt to an institution he would come to consider his home for the rest of his childhood and teen years.

From this remarkably tragic beginning, O’Brien would defy all odds and thrive at the Hershey School. Unlike his brother, who would succumb to a life of mental illness, Johnny moved on to Princeton University (where he currently serves as a trustee emeritus) and a successful career in CEO leadership training in Wye Mills. But unlike other success stories of this kind, the story doesn’t end there.

Over time, O’Brien would lead a successful alumni revolt against the Hershey School board of directors who had blatantly moved away from founder Hershey’s mission during the 1990s, and misallocation of the school’s huge $8 billion endowment. The uprising worked so well that it resulted in Johnny O’Brien, to his own shock, becoming president of the Hershey School in 2003. All of this he has captured in an extraordinary memoir titled, Semisweet: An Orphan’s Journey Through the School the Hersheys Built .

This video is approximately fourteen minutes in length. Mr. O’Brien will be the guest of the News Center in Easton on Saturday, September 6th starting at 10am. Later this fall he will be at the Bookplate in Chestertown.

On Cars, Design and Scholarships: A Spy Chat with George Walish


It doesn’t take long for the viewer to see the unabashed enthusiasm that George Walish has for rare cars and beautiful design. As a 30 year senior executive at BMW and Rolls-Royce, Walish has no ability to hide his passion for classic handbuilt automobiles found before World War II and the craftsmanship that came with them. The challenge for him was to maintain his love of cars after retirement, and at the same time “give back” to his community on the Eastern Shore.

The Walish answer was to bring to the Delmarva one of the automotive community’s greatest traditions, its own Concours d’Elegance, based on the original classic show in Paris in the years before WWII, and now Pebble Beach, California. It is a marriage of exceptionally designed cars, women’s couture, and an excellent charity fundraiser for the Mid-Shore Community Foundation’s scholarship program.

In his conversation with the Spy, George talks about this history the Concours, and its commitment celebrating innovative design, as well as his love for cars, as the Shore prepares itself for the 8th annual Concours d’Elegance on September 28th.

Easton Spotlight: Students Prep for School at Multicultural Center


Anna, a first grader at Easton Elementary School, was the first student in line this year to pick up school supplies at the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center’s Back to School night on Monday in Easton. Carefully eyeing the $5 in monopoly money that she was given, she inspected the stack of supplies with a shopper’s eye.

Ten minutes later, she skipped away with a grocery bag filled with notebooks, pencils, glue sticks, highlighters, markers and tissues. Then, she was whisked off to a table to complete a seek-n-find in order to be eligible to choose from an attractive pile of toys.

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 8.37.17 AMSneaking learning into fun is typical of the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center (ChesMRC.) The activities that engaged Anna included both financial literacy and reading skills. Through the simple act of choosing and purchasing instead of being handed school supplies, Anna was measuring her own capacity and needs versus wants. In finding words on a paper grid of letters, she was exercising her reading muscles again.

Some 100 children came to the Back to School event at the ChesMRC on Monday, almost all of the 120 enrolled in the Center’s afterschool program. And school supplies weren’t the only things offered. Representatives were on hand from the local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Talbot Community Center’s Ice skating programs, the YMCA and Chesapeake College’s English as a Second Language classes for parents. By the end of the evening, students had new friends in the wings, new hobbies to try, fresh opportunities to test aptitude and skill, along with plenty of cool stuff to take to the first day of school.

School supplies for Back to School Night were funded through a new grant from the United Fund of Talbot County. The United Fund of Talbot County is one of the first organizations to support the afterschool program.

Founded two short years ago, the ChesMRC has quickly emerged as the go-to organization to support the region’s immigrant families. From as far away as China and Pakistan and as near as Mexico, families new to Talbot County can rely on the ChesMRC to help them thrive in our community.

A primary focus of the Center is education. ChesMRC opened its doors as an afterschool program on Aurora St. in Easton in 2012. As the only program in town to serve this population, its success quickly attracted attention. The group was awarded a five year 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant from the Maryland State Department of Education in 2013.

The afterschool program now takes place at Easton Elementary and is open to any child coming from a low-income and minority household. Each day, students receive one hour of formal academic instruction in reading or math, delivered by a certified TCPS teacher. This is followed by a 2nd hour of programming that alternates between arts, science, technology nutrition and exercise. The programming is linked to classroom topics and is taught by trained Instructors and community volunteers.

For more information about the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center, see their website at For more information about the United Fund of Talbot County, click on


Study of Conowingo Provides Groundbreaking Findings on Sediment Impact


In May of this year, Colonel Richard Jordan of the  U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, testified before a Senate subcommittee on the preliminary findings of his team’s three-year assessment of the Conowingo Dam and the lower Susquehanna River watershed damage to the Chesapeake Bay during catastrophic weather events. While Col. Jordan’s statement received scant attention in Maryland’s mainstream media at the time, it was a particularly unique moment of clarity in the ongoing debate about the role and accountability for the Conowingo.

In his Spy interview, Col. Jordan outlines the purpose and process of this multi-layered, scientifically driven, study on the water system, and offers some surprising conclusions about sediment and nutrient activity during major storms. He also highlights his team’s most remarkable finding that only 20% of the sediment that flows into the Bay when bad weather hits actually comes from the Conowingo section of the Lower Susquehanna.  For the rest of the 80%, the report suggests one needs to look North.

This video is approximately ten minutes in length 

Profile: Watching the Border with Hoyt Heinmuller

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For native Eastonian, former town council member, and a twenty-five year professional with the former Black and Decker plant in town, the thought of one day packing his bags and relocating to Texas, just minutes from the Mexican border, would never have entered the mind of Hoyt Heinmuller. And yet, like many in America in the 1980s who saw their hometown manufacturing company pick up and leave for cheaper labor found in Mexico, Hoyt shocked himself and his family and decided to move to Alamo, Texas in 2006.

The Spy talked to Hoyt at the Bullett House a few weeks ago about this unique journey, as well as his front row seat to the illegal immigration crisis facing the United States. In our interview, Heinmuller talks candidly about life on the border and his own learning curve in understanding the complexity of an issue with no easy answer.

The video is approximately eleven minutes long

SpyCam: Adding 275 Young Swimmers in St. Michaels

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Several hundred Talbot County children, along with their parents, celebrated their “graduation” Friday night from the St. Michaels Community Center’s “Bay Hundred Swim Kids” program with a party at the St. Michaels Bay Hundred Pool. During the summer, 275 non-swimmers learned how to swim in the program.

The effort is part of the Miles River Yacht Club Foundation’s “SOS: Sink or Swim” initiative to teach all Talbot County children under 15 how to swim. The Foundation provided funding to pay for instructors, give full tuition scholarships to all the children, offer them free admission to the pool for the summer so they could reinforce their new swimming capability, and give them Bay Hundred Swim Kids tee shirts so they can take pride in their new accomplishment. The non-swimmers were enrolled by the St. Michaels Community Center and Critchlow Atkins Childrens Center.

Dr. Sherry Manning, Chairman of the MRYC Foundation, said “we deplore the number of drownings we see in the Bay, ponds, rivers and pools every year. We think knowing how to swim is a basic life skill that every child in Talbot County should have, a prelude to being a boater, and an athletic accomplishment that will enrich every child’s life. ”

The Spy caught up with Pam Phillips, the Community center’s youth Program coordinator on Friday night, at the well-attended celebration of the first year’s graduating class.  Pam talks about the program and the extraordinary need to make sure that kids in Talbot County, which has more waterfront access than any other county  in Maryland, not only feel safe in the water, but also know the joys that come with swimming itself.

This video is approximately two minutes long

Gun Wars: Wicomico Co. Sheriff Among Many Who Won’t Enforce Some Gun Bans

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Sheriff Mike Lewis considers himself the last man standing for the people of Wicomico County.

“State police and highway patrol get their orders from the governor,” the Maryland sheriff said. “I get my orders from the citizens in this county.”

With more states passing stronger gun control laws, rural sheriffs across the country are taking the meaning of their age-old role as defenders of the Constitution to a new level by protesting such restrictions, News21 found.

Some are refusing to enforce the laws altogether.

Sheriffs in states like New York, Colorado and Maryland argue that some gun control laws defy the Second Amendment and threaten rural culture, for which gun ownership is often an integral component.

They’re joined by groups like Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, both of which encourage law enforcement officers to take a stand against gun control laws.

The role of a sheriff

Lewis and some other sheriffs across the nation, most of them elected by residents of their counties, say their role puts them in the foremost position to stand up to gun laws they consider unconstitutional.

“The role of a sheriff is to be the interposer between the law and the citizen,” said Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “He should stand between the government and citizen in every issue pertaining to the law.”

While the position of sheriff is not found in the U.S. Constitution, it is listed in state constitutions: Part VII of Maryland’s, for instance, Article XIV of Colorado’s, Article XV of Delaware’s, and ARTICLE XIII of New York’s. Nearly all of America’s 3,080 sheriffs are elected to their positions, whereas state and city police are appointed.

When Lewis was president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, he testified with other sheriffs against the state’s Firearms Safety Act (FSA) before it was enacted in 2013. One of the strictest gun laws in the nation, the act requires gun applicants to supply fingerprints and complete training to obtain a handgun license online. It bans 45 types of firearms, limits magazines to 10 rounds and outlaws gun ownership for people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

After Lewis opposed the legislation, he said he was inundated with emails, handwritten letters, phone calls and visits from people thanking him for standing up for gun rights. He keeps a stuffed binder in his office with the laminated notes.

“I knew this was a local issue, but I also knew it had serious ramifications on the U.S. Constitution, specifically for our Second Amendment right,” said Lewis, one of 24 sheriffs in the state. “It ignited fire among sheriffs throughout the state. Those in the rural areas all felt the way I did.

Some New York sheriffs won’t enforce bans

In New York, the state sheriff’s association has publicly decried portions of the SAFE Act, legislation that broadened the definition of a banned assault weapon, outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds and created harsher punishments for anyone who kills a first-responder in the line of duty. The act was intended to establish background checks for ammunition sales, although that provision hasn’t taken effect.

A handful of New York’s 62 sheriffs have vowed not to enforce the high-capacity magazine and assault-weapon bans. One of the most vocal is Sheriff Tony Desmond of Schoharie County, population 32,000. He believes his refusal to enforce the SAFE Act won him re-election in 2013.

“If you have an (assault) weapon, which under the SAFE Act is considered illegal, I don’t look at it as being illegal just because someone said it was,” he said.

Desmond’s deputies haven’t made a single arrest related to the SAFE Act. Neither has the office of Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum of Ulster County. Van Blarcum said it’s not his job to interpret the Constitution, so he’ll enforce the law. But he said police should use discretion when enforcing the SAFE Act and determining whether to make arrests, as they do when administering tickets.

In Otsego County, New York, population 62,000, Sheriff Richard Devlin takes a similar approach. He enforces the SAFE Act but doesn’t make it a priority.

“I feel as an elected official and a chief law enforcement officer of the county it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘I’m not going to enforce a law I personally disagree with,’” he said. “If someone uses a firearm in commission of a crime, I’m going to charge you with everything I have, including the SAFE Act. I won’t do anything as far as confiscating weapons. We’re not checking out registrations. People that are lawfully using a firearm for target shooting, we’re not bothering those people.”

Colorado made national headlines when 55 of the state’s 62 sheriffs attempted to sign on as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several 2013 gun control bills in the state. The most-controversial measures banned magazines of more than 15 rounds and established background checks for private gun sales.

A federal judge said the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and eight other sheriffs sued as private citizens. Cooke was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which a federal district judge threw out in June. He and the other plaintiffs are preparing an appeal.

“It’s not (the judge’s) job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said. “I’m still the one that has to say where do I put my priorities and resources? And it’s not going to be there.”

Cooke has won fans with his opposition. He, like Wicomico County Sheriff Lewis, keeps a novel-thick stack of praise and thank-you notes in his office. He’ll run for a Colorado Senate seat in November and is endorsed by the state’s major gun lobby, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Wicomico Sheriff Lewis vs. Sen. Brian Frosh

Lewis, who is running for re-election this year, said sheriffs have a responsibility to push against what he sees as the federal government’s continual encroachment on citizens’ lives and rights.

“Where do we draw a line?” he asked. “I made a vow and a commitment that as long as I’m the sheriff of this county I will not allow the federal government to come in here and strip my law-abiding citizens of the right to bear arms. If they attempt to do that it will be an all-out civil war. Because I will stand toe-to-toe with my people.”

But Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh, Democratic floor leader of Maryland’s FSA and a strong gun-control advocate, said Lewis’ understanding of a sheriff’s role is flawed.

“If you are a sheriff in Maryland you must take an oath to uphold the law and the Constitution,” said Frosh, now the Democratic nominee for Maryland attorney general. “You can’t be selective. It’s not up to a sheriff to decide what’s constitutional and what isn’t. That’s what our courts are for.”

Bronx County, New York, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who co-sponsored the SAFE Act, agreed that sheriffs who refuse to enforce laws they disagree with are acting out of turn. Constitutional sheriffs are not lawyers or judges, Frosh said, which means they are following their convictions instead of the Constitution.

“We had lots of people come in (to testify against the bill) and without any basis say, ‘This violates the Second Amendment,’” Frosh said. “They can cite the Second Amendment, but they couldn’t explain why this violates it. And the simple fact is it does not. There is a provision of our Constitution that gives people rights with respect to firearms, but it’s not as expansive as many of these people think.”

But sheriffs have the power to nullify, or ignore, a law if it is unconstitutional, Maryland Delegate Dwyer said. He said James Madison referred to nullification as the rightful remedy for the Constitution.

“The sheriffs coming to testify on the bill understood the issue enough and were brave enough to come to Annapolis and make the bold stand that on their watch, in their county, they would not enforce these laws even if they passed,” said Dwyer, who lost a reelection bid after his conviction and jail time for drunken driving and drunken boating. “That is the true role and responsibility of what the sheriff is.”

Rural versus urban divide

Some rural sheriffs argue that gun control laws are more than just unconstitutional— they’re unnecessary and irrelevant. In towns and villages where passers-by stop to greet deputies and call local law enforcement to ask for help complying with gun laws, they say, firearms are less associated with crime than they are with a hunting and shooting culture that dates back to when the communities were founded.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.22.51 PMEdward Amelio, a deputy in Lewis County, New York, shares that sentiment. There’s no normal day for Amelio, who has patrolled the 27,000-person county for eight years. But he usually responds to domestic disputes, burglaries and car accidents. That’s why he considers the SAFE Act unnecessary.

“We issue orders of protection and some contain a clause the judge puts in there saying a person’s guns are to be confiscated,” Amelio said. “That’s mostly when we deal with guns.”

Zachary Reinhart, a deputy sheriff in Schoharie County, New York, said he responds to a wide variety of calls, too.

“Our calls range from accidental 911 dials to domestic disputes to bar fights,” he said. “You can’t really typify a day at the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office. It’s all pretty helter-skelter.”

Violent crime also isn’t common in Wicomico County, Maryland, where Lewis is sheriff. He receives daily shooting reports from the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, which are not available for public disclosure.

“You always see ‘nothing to report’ in the eastern region, in the southern region, in the northern region, in the western region,” Lewis said. “But the Baltimore central region? Homicide after homicide after homicide.”

Even though there are few gun crimes in rural areas, Sheriff Michael Carpinelli in Lewis County argues that people need guns for self-defense.

“People rely on the police in an urban environment to come and protect you all the time,” he said. “People who live in a rural area also rely upon the police, but they realize that they live further out from those resources and that they may have to take action themselves.”

Duke law professor Joseph Blocher said gun culture has varied in urban and rural areas for centuries.

“It has long been the case that gun use and ownership and gun culture are concentrated in rural areas. whereas support for gun control and efforts to curb gun violence are concentrated in urban areas,” he said. “In the last couple decades we’ve moved away from that towards a more-centralized gun control.”

Lewis bemoaned lawmakers who craft gun-control legislation but are ignorant about guns. “They have no idea between a long gun and a handgun,” he said. “Many of them admittedly have never fired a weapon in their lives.”

But Klein, the Bronx County senator, said he does understand the gun and hunting culture in upstate New York.

“Growing up, my father was in the military,” Klein said. “When I was younger, I had a .22-caliber gun. In the past, I’ve gone pheasant hunting, quail hunting. It’s great,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing that we do in Albany, especially with the SAFE Act, that in any way takes away someone’s right to own a gun for hunting purposes.”

Oath Keepers and Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association

If former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack had it his way, there wouldn’t be a single gun control law in the U.S.

“I studied what the Founding Fathers meant about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms, and the conclusion is inescapable,” said Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). “There’s no way around it. Gun control in America is against the law.”

He knows his no-compromise stance has cost him and the CSPOA the support of some sheriffs and law enforcement organizations around the country. And it’s resulted in civil rights agencies labeling CSPOA an anti-government “patriot group.”

But Mack, the former sheriff in eastern Arizona’s rural Graham County, is not letting up. His conviction is central to the ideology of CSPOA, which he founded in 2011 to “unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve and obey” the Constitution, according to his introduction letter on the association’s website.

CSPOA also has ties to Oath Keepers, an organization founded in 2009 with a similar goal to unite veterans, law enforcement officers and first-responders who pledge to keep their oath to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Mack serves on the Oath Keepers Board of Directors.

Oath Keepers is larger and farther-reaching than CSPOA, with active chapters in 48 states and the District of Columbia, and an estimated national membership of 40,000. Its website features a declaration of “orders we will not obey,” including those to disarm Americans, impose martial law on a state and blockade cities.

CSPOA grabbed media attention in February with a growing list of sheriffs — 484 as of late July — professing opposition to federal gun control. Detailed with links beside each name, the sheriffs’ stances run the gamut from refusals to impose a litany of federal and state gun-control laws, to vague vows to protect their constituents’ Second Amendment rights, to law critiques that stop short of promising noncompliance.

Only 16 of those 484 are listed as CSPOA members.

Too radical for some sheriffs, officers

Some sheriffs perceive Oath Keepers and CSPOA as too radical to associate with. Desmond, of Schoharie County, New York, is known around his state for openly not enforcing provisions of the SAFE Act that he considers unconstitutional. Still, he’s not a member of either organization.

“I understand where they are, I guess, but I just have to worry right here myself,” Desmond said. “I don’t want to get involved with somebody that may be a bit more proactive when it comes to the SAFE Act. I want to have the image that I protect gun owners, but I’m not fanatical about it.”

Mack is familiar with that sentiment. He suspects it’s hindered the growth of CSPOA.

“This is such a new idea for so many sheriffs that it’s hard for them to swallow it,” Mack said. “They’ve fallen into the brainwashing and the mainstream ideas that you just have to go after the drug dealers and the DUIs and serve court papers — and that the federal government is the supreme law of the land.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that classifies and combats hate and extremist groups, included both CSPOA and Oath Keepers on its list of 1,096 anti-government “patriot” groups active in 2013. Both groups have faced criticism for their alleged connections to people accused of crimes that range from possessing a live napalm bomb to shooting and killing two Las Vegas police officers and a bystander in June.

Media representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 1.21.57 PMFranklin Shook, an Oath Keepers board member who goes by the pseudonym “Elias Alias,” said the organization doesn’t promote violence, but rather a message of peaceful noncompliance.

“What Oath Keepers is saying is … when you get an order to go to somebody’s house and collect one of these guns, just stand down,” Shook said. “Say peacefully, ‘I refuse to carry out an unlawful order,’ and we, the organization, will do everything in our power to keep public pressure on your side to keep you from getting in trouble for standing down. That makes Oath Keepers extremely dangerous to the system.”

The future of gun control laws

Self-proclaimed constitutional sheriffs hope that courts will oust gun control measures in their states — but they recognize that may not happen. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of gun control legislation in Maryland, New York and Colorado have been, for the most part, unsuccessful.

In New York, five SAFE Act-related lawsuits have yielded few results: One lawsuit resulted in an expansion of the magazine limit from seven rounds to 10, but the rest of the measures were thrown out and are awaiting appeal; a similar lawsuit was stayed; a third was thrown out and denied appeal; and two additional lawsuits have been combined but are stagnating in court.

Plaintiffs in the Colorado sheriff lawsuit are preparing to appeal the decision of a federal district judge who in June upheld the constitutionality of the 2013 gun control laws.

In Maryland, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake last week upheld Maryland’s new bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

By Marlena Chertock, Emilie Eaton, Jacy Marmaduke and Sydney Stavinoha, Marlena Chertock, the lead writer on this story, is a journalism graduate of the University of Maryland.  Emilie Eaton is a News21 Hearst Fellow. Jacy Marmaduke is a News21 Peter Kiewet Fellow. Sydney Stavinoha is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.