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Anti-government icon raises concern during Kalispell visit

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | June 26, 2021 12:00 AM

A former Arizona sheriff and hero of the anti-government militia movement has returned to the Flathead Valley to speak at conservative gatherings, sell his self-published books and promote his curious view of the United States' system of government.

Richard Mack, 68, is a Second Amendment absolutist who argues law enforcement officers — and particularly county sheriffs — can disregard any laws they personally deem corrupt or unconstitutional. He spoke Thursday evening at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell and was scheduled to host a larger event there on Saturday.

"There is one person who I believe can stop this new world order. His name is your county sheriff," Mack told "InfoWars" provocateur Alex Jones in 2009, summing up his ideology. "There is no question your sheriff has the responsibility to protect you from tyranny and international bankers."

Mack, who served two terms as sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, gained a measure of national attention in the 1990s when he and then-Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz were recruited by the National Rifle Association to sue the federal government over the recently passed Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act. They won in a 5-4 decision that said the Clinton administration could not compel state officials to perform background checks for gun purchases.

Mack has made a career on the far-right speaking circuit ever since, and acknowledges it cost him re-election for sheriff in 1996. He started an amorphous group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, writes books and sells highlighted copies of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion in the Brady Act case. He has visited western Montana on several occasions, including stops in Hamilton and Polson in 2009 and Evergreen in 2011.

"We do not, at the CSPOA, advocate violence of any kind, nor do we support it from any political faction — left, right or middle," Mack told the Daily Inter Lake in an interview Thursday.

But extremism experts frequently raise alarm about Mack, noting his affiliations with groups such as the Oath Keepers, who participated in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and followers of the Bundy family who engaged in armed standoffs with federal agents in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016.

That didn't stop Mack from receiving approval from the state of Montana to host a law enforcement training session in Kalispell on Friday, which was canceled only because of staffing limitations in the Flathead County Sheriff's Office.

During Thursday's meeting at the Red Lion Hotel, Mack took a moment to recognize and welcome one attendee, Randy Weaver — the central figure in the deadly 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Years ago, Mack helped Weaver write a book about the event, which left a U.S. marshal and most of Weaver's family dead and remains a rallying cry of anti-government extremists across the country.

TRAVIS MCADAM, a leader of the Montana Human Rights Network who researches white nationalist and militia groups, said Mack's message is rooted not in traditional conservatism or law enforcement ethics, but rather a misguided notion that county sheriffs are best positioned to stand in the way of federal overreach — "that sheriffs basically are above the law, that they get to decide what laws they will or won't enforce."

McAdam and other experts trace Mack's ideology to the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1960s and '70s, which combined anti-tax sentiment and right-wing populism with elements of Christian Identity, a movement that identifies Jews as the progeny of Satan and Black people as subhuman. Latin for "power of the county," Posse Comitatus followers believed county sheriffs are the highest legitimate law enforcement officers in the United States and should use that power to arrest tax collectors and other officials perceived as corrupt.

Mack espouses equality — he lionized Rosa Parks and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. during his call with the Inter Lake — but has shared stages with various racist and anti-Semitic figures over the years.

"I always think it's really important to remember that, when we're talking about the militia movement, we're not just talking about some innocent fraternity of gun enthusiasts," McAdam said. "We're talking about a movement that produced Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. This is a movement that Dave Burgert and Project 7 up in the Flathead [which stockpiled guns, bombs and ammunition, and drafted a hit list of local officials] were part of … This is a movement that helped drive the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6."

MACK'S VISIT to Kalispell was organized by a small local group calling itself the Flathead Liberty Coalition, which has a website promoting baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic and 5G wireless networks.

The group invited many local elected officials to hear Mack speak — including Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, who sponsored an application to get Mack's four-hour presentation accredited by the state of Montana as a training session for his deputies.

Heino said the group requested the sheriff's office hold the training session, and so he submitted the application to Montana's Public Safety Officer Standards and Training Bureau, known as POST, which approved it. The training was scheduled for Friday but was canceled due to staffing limitations at the sheriff's office, Heino said, adding it was never mandatory for his deputies to attend.

"I am an elected official. I respond to 120,000 people," Heino said. "And so, when you have a large group of different perspectives of all types throughout my county, and they request that we discuss these options or these topics, you have to be available to discuss those topics. … I'm not saying I agree with everything Sheriff Mack says."

The application form to get a training session POST-certified requires a written biography of the instructor and requires applicants to retain course materials such as lesson plans and student handouts, though details of the curriculum don't have to be submitted along with the application.

THOUGH POST is tasked with ensuring law enforcement training sessions meet state standards, Executive Director Perry Johnson said the bureau typically defers to local law enforcement agencies that submit applications.

"If they review a training curriculum that they think has merit or value to their officers or other officers, we seldom would censor that," Johnson told the Inter Lake. "If they think that there's some merit to it, even if it has some kind of message — well, I just don't get into it at all. If they endorse it, they'll get POST credit for it."

As an out-of-stater, Mack, who has not been a law enforcement officer for more than two decades, doesn't have to be certified as a Montana law enforcement instructor to teach in the state. He told the Inter Lake he has hosted state-approved law enforcement training sessions in 10 states.

Friday's canceled "constitutional training" session appeared as a calendar entry on the Montana Department of Justice's website. The entry stated: "Former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack is founder of CSPOA and established the 'County Sheriff Project' movement, both of whom reaffirm the constitutional power of the Sheriff to refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws."

McAdam, with the Montana Human Rights Network, said he was troubled to see the event receive official recognition and become "normalized."

"There clearly is this attempt by the organizers to try to get sheriffs and sheriff's deputies in the room, where they are hoping that they will buy into this extremist ideology, and adopt some of this worldview, and take that home, and have that guide how they do their job," McAdam said. "And I think that that is really troubling and frightening."

WHILE HE still touts and draws an air of legitimacy from his Supreme Court victory more than two decades ago, Mack, who does not have a law degree, simultaneously argues that court rulings are binding only when they comport with a sheriff's interpretation of the Constitution.

"I take an oath and I don't have to keep it unless the Supreme Court tells me so? That is not the Oath of Office," he told the Inter Lake. "I have to keep my oath, which presupposes that I know and understand the Constitution."

He believes the judicial branch established by the Constitution is ineffective; lawsuits are too expensive and time-consuming to achieve his version of justice.

"There's not time or money to do that on every abuse. The abuse is so ubiquitous now," he said. Of his Supreme Court case, he said, "I learned something from it. I should have just said no. And the other sheriffs in Arizona should have said, 'No, we're not doing this. I don't work for you.' We should have said no."

He added: "Rosa Parks was a hero because she defied stupid laws."

THE RULING in Mack's case dealt with the specific question of whether the federal government could compel officials from a state's executive branch to perform duties established under federal law — the gun background checks mandated by the Brady Act. The ruling does not rely on the Constitution's supremacy clause, which says federal law trumps state and local laws. Nor did it undo other rulings that place limits on the right to bear arms, such as the 1939 Supreme Court decision prohibiting sawed-off shotguns in interstate commerce.

But McAdam said Mack has inflated the meaning of the decision.

"There's a time at which I wonder if Richard Mack just drank his own Kool-Aid," McAdam said. "The way the Supreme Court decision was ruled was on a pretty specific matter. But the way that the militia movement talks about it, they make it sound like the Supreme Court said that you couldn't enact any form of gun control."

Mack argues all gun laws and regulations are unconstitutional, whether enacted by a state or the federal government. And over the past year, he has adapted his message to stoke fury over COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and mask mandates.

Of his Supreme Court win, he told the Inter Lake: "It's the most powerful Tenth Amendment decision in the history of our country. It says that the states are not subject to federal direction. It says that the Constitution protects us from the crisis of the day, that the Constitution protects us from our own best intentions.

"I believe that that states clearly that no government has any authority to shut down churches, arrest ministers for simply having church, arresting people for not wearing a diaper on their faces, and shutting down individual liberty, destroying the Constitution."

This story has been updated to correct the number of terms that Mack served as Graham County sheriff.

Assistant editor Chad Sokol may be reached at 406-758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.