For a growing contingent of Buncombe County residents, the supreme law of the land isn’t enough. While the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment, local gun rights activists are asking the county Board of Commissioners to add what they see as another layer of protection: status as a Second Amendment “sanctuary.”
Under language proposed by the N.C. Federation of Republican Men, Buncombe County would commit to using “all legal means necessary” to protect its citizens’ access to firearms. Additionally, county officials would agree to refrain from enforcing any “acts, laws, orders, mandates, rules or regulations that infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
One Facebook group supporting the move, Buncombe County 2nd Amendment Sanctuary, had over 5,300 members as of press time, and an online petition had garnered over 1,370 signatures. “I want to protect and secure what rights we have left and be assured they cannot be taken from us,” says Candler resident Sandra Ingle, who is helping to organize both efforts.
If Buncombe commissioners approve the resolution, they would join the boards of neighboring McDowell and Rutherford counties, which both passed Second Amendment sanctuary language in January. Several other Western North Carolina counties, including Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Haywood, have either enacted sanctuary resolutions or will hold a vote on the matter in the coming months.
The county’s top law enforcement official, however, says passage of the resolution would bring no discernible benefit for Buncombe gun owners. “With all due respect to our county commissioners, our gun laws are regulated by state law in North Carolina,” said Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, a Democrat. “Therefore, a resolution passed by the Buncombe County Commissioners would not have an impact one way or the other.”
In contrast, Ingle and other local Second Amendment activists claim that Miller’s interpretation of gun laws is driving the need for sanctuary designation in Buncombe. Comments made during Miller’s campaign for sheriff, they argue, hint at an agenda that would weaken Second Amendment protections.
“If Van Duncan was still sheriff or if he had his choice, I don’t think there’d be an issue at all. But with Quentin … well, I’ve got a pretty good idea who the people that are pulling his strings are,” says Phil Flack, owner of P.F. Custom Guns in Asheville and a supporter of the sanctuary resolution. “They’d act to eliminate all firearms everywhere and our right to defend ourselves.”
And Ingle specifically points to a statement Miller sent to WLOS in March 2018. At the time, the then-candidate said “we’re long overdue for common-sense gun control” and that “I will not waffle” in advocating for policies such as renewing a federal assault weapons ban, removing firearms from violent criminals and raising the age for gun purchases to 21.
Miller reaffirmed that stance in a Jan. 28 email to Xpress, saying that he would abide by all state-level firearms regulations but continue to advocate for stronger measures. He called the sanctuary resolution “a political football that gets rolled out every election season.”
“We’ve heard for a long time that Democrats are going to take your guns, going all the way back to President [Bill] Clinton and, of course, with President [Barack] Obama,” Miller continued. “We live in a time of cheap political attacks that are not grounded in fact, but it is possible to support the Second Amendment as I do and also support common-sense regulations like background checks, which are not in violation of our U.S. Constitution.”
Shot in the dark
The Buncombe County gun rights movement gained momentum quickly — Ingle’s Facebook group was established on Jan. 12, less than a month ago — but it is unclear who exactly sparked the recent push. According to Chad Nesbitt of SKYline News, the first sign of local Second Amendment sanctuary advocacy was an unattributed flyer asking residents to speak for gun rights at the Tuesday, Feb. 4, regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners.
No individual or organization Xpress contacted for this article claimed responsibility for distributing the flyer. Fremont Brown, mountain region vice president for the N.C. Federation of Republican Men, said his group does not use the term “sanctuary” and prefers “constitutional rights protection county.”
In response to reports that the flyer had been handed out at the Asheville Gun & Knife Show at the WNC Ag Center on Jan. 4-5, organizer Mike Kent said he wasn’t aware of its origin. “I require anyone distributing material to check in with me and get approval, but obviously this person bypassed our rules,” he said.
And the Black Mountain John Brown Gun Club, a local community defense group opposing “racist, homophobic, classist and patriarchal systems,” objects to the sanctuary language because it co-opts advocacy for vulnerable migrants. “In many cases, these efforts appear to be fake solutions looking for problems,” added a Jan. 24 statement from the organization.
The Buncombe movement does come at a time of increased state and national attention on the Second Amendment. In opposition to new gun control laws proposed by Virginia’s Democratic-controlled legislature, approximately 22,000 people from across the country protested on Jan. 20 in Richmond.
During that rally, North Carolina Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, delivered a letter signed by at least 50 of his Republican colleagues to Virginia’s Republican caucus in support of Second Amendment sanctuaries. Signers from WNC included Jake Johnson, R-Henderson; Michele Presnell, R-Yancey; and Kevin Corbin, R-Macon.
Prior to the Feb. 4 meeting, Xpress reached out to all six Buncombe commissioners regarding their stance on the proposed resolution. The board’s two Republicans — Joe Belcher and Robert Pressley — did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Democrat Al Whitesides. The seat previously held by Republican Mike Fryar is vacant following Fryar’s death Feb. 2.
Of the remaining three Democrats, only Jasmine Beach-Ferrara directly confirmed that she was opposed to the Second Amendment sanctuary designation. “Due to the current failure to regulate access to guns, children and teachers in our community have to do active shooter drills regularly. As an elected official and as a mom, I cannot express strenuously enough how much I support gun control legislation,” she added.
Although board Chair Brownie Newman did not explicitly confirm his opposition, he shared support for “additional gun safety policies, such as universal background checks and a ban on military-style assault weapons.” He noted that county commissions cannot adopt or enforce firearm regulations independently and that enforcement of state laws at the county level is the responsibility of the sheriff.
Commissioner Amanda Edwards took a different tack in her response. “I don’t want Buncombe County to become a pawn in a divisive national issue, be it this issue or the next one that comes around. Instead, we need to be coming together to find common ground and work together on solutions to the challenges we face as a community,” she said.
As of press time, advocates were gearing up for what gun shop owner Flack calls a “peaceful demonstration” for gun rights at the commission meeting. However, he shares a message for those who might oppose their goal.
“There might be a couple of people from antifa and some of these groups that might show up and try to disrupt it,” Flack says. “I wouldn’t want to be one of them, if you know what I mean. I think they’ll be sorely outnumbered.”