Late last Wednesday afternoon in the bucolic Pensacola suburb of Pace, Florida, residents saw a 32-year-old man attempting to break into houses. Homeowners began calling the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office around 4:30 P.M. to report his suspicious activities. (“Multiple people called,” the sheriff later said.) One resident even reported that his wife ran and locked the back door to their home just as the man attempted to pull it open.
At 5:12 P.M. one resident fired his gun at the suspect. (The shooter has not been identified.) Twenty sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene with dogs to chase down the suspect, who was not hit by any gunfire. They cornered the suspect in a bedroom of another house, and, as deputies rushed into the room with their guns raised, the suspect jumped out of the window. The whole thing was over in less than an hour.
When all was said and done, Santa Rosa Sheriff Bob Johnson got his man, who has now been charged with multiple felonies. According to Sheriff Johnson the suspect has a criminal record extending back into adolescence, or as the sheriff put it, the suspect “never got the message.” (“Job security,” he said.)
That evening, Sheriff Johnson went further in a press conference about the arrest. “If someone is breaking into your house,” he said, “you are more than welcome to shoot him in Santa Rosa County. We prefer that you do, actually.” He encouraged the person who fired the gun to attend a gun safety class. “If you take that, you’ll shoot a lot better, and hopefully you’ll save taxpayers money.” The comments, delivered in a total deadpan, seemed to say, “I hope you kill the guy.”
Later, Johnson went on Fox and Friends and said,
If somebody breaks into your house in Santa Rosa County, and you shoot and kill him, the chances of them reoffending after that are zero. And we like those odds.
As one defense attorney told NPR: “Sheriff Johnson just turned Santa Rosa into the Wild West. Maybe one less sheriff's salary is a better way to save the taxpayers money.”
There are a few problems with what the sheriff said beyond becoming a social media phenomenon. For example, that gun safety class Sheriff Johnson suggested to the anonymous bad shot? Let’s ignore the self-promotion as well as the website’s disclaimer that this is “not a ‘how to shoot’ class, as its emphasis is on firearm safety and responsible gun ownership.” Florida is in fact doing everything in its power to make sure that bad shot never feels the need for a class.
Florida, like 36 states, has a stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use deadly force if they “feel” in fear for their life. This law allows people to shoot home invaders—it even justifies shooting other people while trying to shoot home invaders—without any requirement to try less drastic measures first. And, while Florida does not yet have universal permitless carry (also called “constitutional carry” by 2A stans), Governor Ron DeSantis has promised to sign such a bill, if one ever comes his way. Florida will then join the company of 25 states that allow people to carry concealed or open firearms without going through a permitting or training process. Right now, Florida does not require a license or registration for a firearm in the home, only for concealed carry. Open carry is completely illegal, except for hunting, etc.
So a sheriff has come out and joined one-time District Attorney Dale Cox in his famous declaration that “we need to kill more people.” He’s encouraged all the bad shots out there to shoot more people without more training at the same time that the state’s regulatory structure is making all of this easier. But, while most sensible people don’t think they should shoot just anyone, there is some widespread appeal to home defense, evidenced by Ring cameras and deadbolts. (And, I might argue, those with abusive partners might need stand-your-ground if https://www.vox.com/2018/8/25/17778712/stand-your-ground-alabama-black-woman-gunslaw enforcement or judges ever decide it should pertain to more than white males.) Is this just more bad news about more bad policies?
I think there’s more going on.
In the not-too-distant past, civilian gun ownership promotion focused on hunting and professional shooting. While guns were sometimes touted for self-protection, they were family-friendly, and it was a bit taboo to sell guns by creating an intense, if generalized, fear of persistent lawlessness. But paired with “crime crisis” narratives that many past law enforcement officials would have been embarrassed to promote—self-defense means, after all, law enforcement has failed to defend you—civilian gun ownership is increasingly justified by concerns over crime and safety, both on the street and at home.
Sheriffs are leading the way, even in places that are not traditionally firearm-friendly. In a Chino forum with Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and San Bernardino Sheriff Shannon Dicus, Los Angeles Sheriff and Potato Cowboy Alex Villanueva encouraged people to apply for concealed carry permits, which in California require “good cause.” Villanueva went on to suggest how people could justify their CCW permit by arguing that they work at night or have a stalker: “I just need a reason why you, individually, need a CCW, a good cause.” Villanueva has argued that the murder rate in Los Angeles is justification for more citizens to arm themselves. (SCOTUS seems poised to rule that gun permitting schemes that require any showing of good cause are unconstitutional so sheriffs may just be getting ahead.)
In fact, there is no link between civilian gun ownership and increased public safety; rather the correlation is the opposite. Present research into gun ownership — which is limited by longstanding federal restrictions on funding such research — links increased gun ownership to an increase in violent crime. (RAND compiled a series of existing gun studies, and some found no effect or an increase in crime; none found a decrease.) So the proliferation of gun-enthusiastic sheriffs isn’t about actual public safety, just like the “crime crisis” media narratives being driven by sheriffs aren’t really about actual crime stats.
Not only are sheriffs working in tandem with legislatures to make it easier to purchase guns, but states have also passed a variety of laws that allow civilians to use their guns for ostensible self-protection. Sheriff Johnson’s casual invitation to kill unconvicted people for suspected property crimes also reflects the fact that sheriffs are responsible for at least 30% of all deadly shootings, even though only 25% of all sworn officers work for sheriffs. Adding in the (high) number of jail deaths sheriffs are responsible for, it seems fair to say that, in addition to committing more misconduct in office, sheriffs also kill more people. Just last week, in Osceola County, sheriff deputies shot and killed a teenager in a Target parking lot who was suspected of stealing Pokémon cards and a pizza. Two other men were injured. The sheriff’s office has refused to release the name of the man they killed and the names of the deputies involved, citing Marcy’s Law, a 2018 amendment to the Florida constitution intended to protect “crime victims.” Sheriffs deputies, working on behalf of the public, are apparently crime victims even when they have committed crimes.
Surveys, anecdotal evidence, and sheriff organizational lobbying all reflect a common consensus that sheriffs are more likely to support civilian gun ownership than police chiefs. Not all sheriffs support permitless carry: big-city sheriffs tend to dissuade people from owning guns altogether, and in many states, sheriffs are in charge of and collect the fees from gun permits. (Alabama sheriffs, for example, opposed so-called constitutional carry because they collect the fees.)
But the average sheriff is pro-gun, which when you think about it really is a curious position for an officer of the entity supposed to exercise a monopoly on violence (the state). There are many potential causes for this intersection of interests. Sheriffs are more likely to be influential in rural areas, where gun ownership is high. Sheriffs are elected, which means they are more likely to reflect partisan values. They are also more closely linked to vigilantism—and its closely related cousin, the posse comitatus—which lets civilians become their own police.
Finally, there are close links between sheriffs and Christian Reconstructionism, which has transformed gun ownership into something “godly” and good. A version of the “good guy with a gun” modern gun culture — which includes the purchase of gun-related goods like t-shirts and hats as well as gun purchases — is now inextricably linked to the modern pan-Christian evangelical movement.
Just as the current version of Christianity is a religion without a church — where faith is expressed through the consumption of books, movies, and Fox News — gun culture is about violence in defense of a nation that exists not in the halls of Congress or the White House, but in Tucker Carlson, MAGA hats, and Cross-Fit. Throughout the history of police forces, their existence has been justified in classic Weberian terms based on the consolidation and rationalizing of violence in contrast to the vigilante violence movement in the 19th century. (In a prior post, I talked a little about how vigilante violence was more consolidated and organized than current perceptions allow.) As gun ownership increases, it appears that sheriffs are, unlike their police chief counterparts, encouraging a return to that vigilante violence, whose ultimate authority is a Christian god, not the government. This is a key component of Christian Reconstructionism and is evidenced in Samuel Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
Why are sheriffs such a key component? For one thing, they are 90% white men and almost all Christian. I counted two Jewish sheriffs in the past century. Sheriffs’ most powerful constituents — people who live in rural America, the 20% of people who live in over 80% of counties — are much more likely to be Christian, to identify as evangelical, and to support gun rights. Christian Reconstructionism has also taken hold because of mass consumerism — allegiance isn’t created through attending church or doing good works, but rather through consuming media that aligns with these ideals. Importantly, Christian Reconstructionism believes that the laws need to be changed to promote certain values. This marries nicely with partisan, political ambitions of sheriffs eager to capitalize on religious fervor to further their power. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ can only happen if you let Christian men transform the world into one ready for Him.
Sheriffs encouraging people to shoot burglars may not seem like much of a story. But it is one piece—and when you consider January 6 and the rise in political violence that depends on large scale white, male, evangelical gun ownership, an important piece—of a pretty big story: the growth of fascist ideology, and the means to carry out, in America today.
As an aside, Sheriff Johnson is eager to remind you that not everyone who commits a crime deserves vigilante violence in return. Earlier in April, before Sheriff Johnson encouraged people to shoot potential home invaders, he also promised to bring a sheriff’s office employee (an animal handler) to justice for a particularly cruel killing of a donkey. (The handler has since been arrested.)
He called for patience before the public jumped to conclusions:
Everybody wants his head on a platter immediately then and there. And there's a process and everybody gets due process no matter [what].
In Santa Rosa County, the law exists, it would seem, mostly to cover its ass.