Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

The gun Congress can’t ban

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In February, I decided it was time to go to Montana. On my way out of Boulder, I stopped at a coin store and bought, for thirty-four dollars each, eight one-ounce silver pieces minted by a private company based in Orem, Utah. They were as big around as Oreos and thicker than quarters, with an Indian head on one side and a buffalo on the other.

Montana feels awfully far away from Washington, D.C. The valleys are broad, stretching to snowcapped peaks in the distance. “High, wide, and handsome” is the way Montanans like to describe it. Hours can go by on the highway without the appearance of a settlement bigger than a few dozen people, and many back roads seem to meander through the nineteenth century.

The state has always been politically complicated. Local 1 of the Western Federation of Miners was located in Butte, which was once one of the nation’s most thoroughly unionized cities. The Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, were active here in the early part of the twentieth century, as was the Communist Party — at least among radicalized farmers in the northeastern part of the state. Its last two governors have been Democrats. But it’s also home to the Militia of Montana, among the most prominent of the armed right-wing bands that coalesced in the Clinton era, and both gun culture and a certain brand of don’t-tread-on-me politics run deep.

On my way to visit Celata in a town called Dillon in the southwest corner of the state, I stopped in Deer Lodge, close to the Continental Divide, to talk with Sheriff Scott F. Howard of Powell County. Howard was one of the first sheriffs in the nation to announce that he would refuse to enforce any new gun laws passed after Sandy Hook. His office is in a squat cement-block building on 4th Street, but his jurisdiction includes 2,700 square miles of wooded mountains and rolling ranchland. Howard is popular in the county, which is home to Montana’s only maximum-security men’s prison, and by all accounts he does a good job. He’s been sheriff since 1995.

“They’ve had plans a long time to control guns and citizens owning guns,” said Howard, a powerfully built man of fifty-four with a Vandyke beard, a nose that looks like it was born broken, and a voice like a garbage disposal with a spoon in it. He slid a piece of paper across his desk, a letter he’d sent Vice President Joe Biden eight days earlier. “Any federal regulation enacted by Congress or Executive Order of the President offending the Constitutional rights of citizens shall not be enforced by me or my deputies,” it read.

We must not allow, nor shall we tolerate, the actions of criminals, no matter how heinous the crimes, to prompt politicians to enact laws that will infringe upon the liberties of responsible citizens who have broken no laws.

“Tough stuff,” I said.

“He isn’t going to listen to anybody from Montana,” Howard said, putting the letter back in his desk drawer. “We have nothing to offer. But I took an oath. The same one he took. I don’t think anybody in that position should be dinking with the Constitution.”

Here was another way federal bans might fail: local law enforcement might simply look the other way. The number of sheriffs nationwide siding with Howard in opposition to new gun laws has risen to more than 400 — about 14 percent of the country’s total — with fifteen state sheriffs’ associations joining them, and not just in predictable places like Utah and Wyoming but in Illinois and California as well.

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is the author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip, which was published in March by Knopf. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Happiness Is a Worn Gun,” appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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