The move has set off an debate that threatens to intensify the urban-rural divide in America and could complicate the enforcement of any new gun laws by federal agents in certain parts of the country.
One law-enforcement group is pushing to get at least 1,200 out of the nation's 31,000 sheriffs to publicly oppose the proposed laws, and legislators in at least two states – Wyoming and Texas – have vowed to introduce bills that would make it a felony for a federal agent to apply any new gun-restriction law against residents of those states.
The pushback recalls the 1997 Printz v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court found that Congress can't force police officers to do its will – in that case, carry out an interim provision of the Brady Act, which mandated local background checks of firearms purchasers.
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.