Should Utah sheriffs wade into the gun control debate?

I’m writing this as a concerned citizen regarding recent media coverage and events in Utah since the Newtown tragedy.

Briefly, here is a little background behind my feelings on this matter. I am proud to say that our son Chris, after his mission and college, enrolled in Officer Candidate School and became a commissioned officer in the Navy. Lieutenant Olsen is current serving as the navigation officer aboard the USS Dallas (familiar to Tom Clancy fans), a fast-attack nuclear sub based in Connecticut.

Chris’s experience in the military has been an education for us. One of the things we’ve learned about is part of the code of conduct in the military: Our men and women in uniform are allowed to have political opinions, and they do, but military ethics do not allow them to speak publicly about their opinions. They understand that in our democracy, it’s the civilians who make policy and enact laws, and it’s their job to serve and protect.

An interesting example is the recent decision to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and allow openly gay people to serve. In polling leading up to the decision, Marines were probably the most opposed to the change. With this in mind, I was talking with Chris right after the decision was announced, and expressed my thoughts that the Marines would have a problem with it. Chris’s reply was surprising:  He said, “Dad, of all the services, the Marines will be the first to accept and implement this decision. The Marines get it. They understand their role in our nation. Part of the culture of ‘Semper Fi’ is respect for authority and following orders. A Marine may hate the guts of his squad leader and question his judgment, but he will still put his life on the line to carry out that leader’s orders without complaint.”

Another heart-wrenching example: In 2007, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich was killed in Iraq. His father, retired Col.  Andrew Bacevich, has been one of the most outspoken and eloquent opponents of American militarism in general, and President Bush and the Iraq War in particular. But despite this, Col. Bacevich supported his son’s responsibility to his nation and the commander-in-chief.

The parallel between our men and women in the military, and our men and women in law enforcement, seems obvious. In both cases, those in uniform have been entrusted with the overwhelming responsibility to use deadly force in defense of our laws. In both cases, it seems to me that those at the “point of the spear” should understand what their role is – and is not.

I’ve read a lot of comments in the media recently from some of Utah’s law enforcement officers about their concern for the Constitution. The most important principle in that sacred document is separation of powers. I understand – and even empathize – with the strong feelings many of our local law enforcement officers have towards the Second Amendment. However, I must frankly state: When you accepted the uniform and the badge, you accepted the role that goes with it, and that role does not include interpreting the Constitution. Other functions of government have that role. Some of the comments I have read from Utah sheriffs would be grounds for court martial for a military officer. That fact should give you pause.

Does this mean you should not voice your concerns to elected officials? Not at all; but it should be done in the way military officers do it; privately, not publicly, with the proper respect and deference due to our democratically elected officials (whether you agree with them or not), and always with the understanding that those at the tip of the spear take orders from civilians. I can think of no other Constitutional principle more important than this. The alternative is despotism and anarchy.

This is not about the substance of the gun control debate. We live in the West, so even many Democrats are opposed to more gun control laws. This is about who should be making those arguments publicly. There are many eloquent voices in this state to make arguments on Second Amendment issues. I don’t see the need for law enforcement officers to weigh in on this or any other political dispute. I believe it conflicts with the Constitutional principle of separation of powers, and erodes the legitimate authority of law enforcement. That principle is more important than any one individual’s view on one particular section of the Bill of Rights. Law enforcement should follow the example of our dedicated soldiers, sailors and airmen and should leave arguing political issues to others.

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