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In rural America, some sheriffs vow to defy Obama on gun control

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But constitutional law experts say there's a big difference between passively refusing to enforce federal law – as some sheriffs are proposing – and actively standing in the way of federal law or Washington's agents.

"The hope is that, if state police want to champion Second Amendment rights, they'd do it through the courts," says Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. "But of course the whole vision of the Second Amendment is they don't do it through the courts – that when the federal intrusion comes, the states will be able to stand up to the federal government. The only problem is, we tried that once, and that was the Civil War."

The heated rhetoric partly obscures the actual dynamics of the new gun-control debate. Both pro- and anti-gun forces are trying to appeal to centrist, gun-friendly Americans in order to build a coalition large enough to defeat the intentions of the other side.

In this context, some of the statements by sheriffs and state lawmakers could be political posturing aimed at feeding the latent fear among many gun-rights advocates that increased gun registration will lead to a confiscation movement. But Mr. Obama has reiterated his support of the Second Amendment and the basic right of Americans to own and carry firearms both for hunting and self-protection.

Moreover, Congress has already given at least two of Obama's proposals – the bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines – a cool reception.

But the honest concern voiced by some sheriffs and lawmakers is also a sign of how thoroughly the Second Amendment is woven into views of freedom in parts of rural America.

In Kentucky's Jackson County, which bears the slogan "Where the mountains and the bluegrass blend," and Sheriff Denny Peyman ranks the Second Amendment's authority alongside the Bible's authority.

"I swore an oath to the Constitution,” Mr. Peyman said on Fox News Monday. “And in the Constitution is the Second Amendment, and that’s what this country is based upon. How can I rightfully in my own mind and in my heart come in and take guns away from people when that is their protection?”

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