Disclaimer: The Second Amendment Foundation filed suit against Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny and the Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police in June, challenging a state firearms regulation requiring Federal Firearm Licensees to obtain a state firearm license that requires them to submit to unconstitutional, warrantless searches.

by Lee Williams

At the very least, Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny has violated his oath of office, particularly the portion in which he swore to support and defend the United States Constitution including the Second Amendment.

Montgomery County is a Philadelphia suburb and the third largest county in Pennsylvania. Sheriff Kilkenny oversees approximately 115 deputies who lack a traditional law enforcement mission. They neither patrol nor respond to 911 calls regularly. Their “core responsibilities” include courthouse security, transporting prisoners and serving warrants and other legal process. Most of the actual police work in Montgomery County is done by local and State Police, the Sheriff acknowledges on his website.

At a time when most law enforcement agencies are struggling with budget cuts and severe recruiting and staffing problems, Kilkenny’s deputies were looking for more to do. The Sheriff recently ordered them to start conducting warrantless inspections of local gun dealers in their jurisdiction. In addition to a Federal Firearm License, gun dealers in the Commonwealth must also obtain a state license, according to a regulation promulgated by the Pennsylvania State Police. This state license requires the dealers to agree to warrantless searches by the State Police or their designee – in this case the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, a Democrat, was first elected in 2015. (Photograph courtesy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.)

A series of emails obtained by the Second Amendment Foundation through Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know legislation shows how Sheriff Kilkenny, who is also an attorney, was practically groomed into agreeing to conduct these inspections by a statewide gun-control group, CeaseFirePA. The emails also demonstrate how neither the Sheriff’s Office nor CeaseFirePA knew what they were doing when they established the program, or even how to train the deputies before sending them out to inspect local gun dealers.

One national firearm industry expert said it is incredibly rare for local law enforcement to inspect gun dealers, who are already federally licensed and overregulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Most beat cops don’t know what gun they have on their hip, much less how to use it. They’re not going to know what they’re even looking at.” said John “JC” Clark of FFL Consultants. Clark and co-founder John “JB” Bocker crisscross the country to support licensed gun dealers through training, consulting and other advisory work.

If a Montgomery County deputy asks a gun dealer for an ATF Form 4473 or any other federal document, Clark recommends that the dealer should ask for a subpoena or, at the very least, that the deputies put their request in writing on official letterhead.

“If originals are demanded, written confirmation is mandatory. If providing originals, retain photocopies of the originals and attach a memo for the record alongside the subpoena or letter,” he said.

Clark also questions who will train and supervise the local deputies as they undertake a role traditionally reserved for the ATF.

“Where are they receiving their training on what should or shouldn’t be done?” he asked. “At least the ATF has a code of federal regulations – guidelines and guidance. The dealers know what they’re expected to do and where to reference more information. With this, we don’t know anything, including what they even have a right to look at.”

Legal experts balked at the local deputies’ reliance on warrantless searches.

“Unlike other areas of Pennsylvania law, where the legislature did craft language to allow for warrantless searches, the requirement to allow such is not found anywhere in the laws regulating firearms sales and was wholly created by an administrative agency,” said Adam Kraut, executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation.

“We’ve taken this action to assure constitutional rights are protected from legal oversteps by law enforcement,” added Alan M. Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation.

Sheriff Kilkenny did not respond to calls seeking his comments for this story.

CeaseFirePA

According to its website, the mission of CeaseFirePA is to “end the epidemic of gun violence across the Commonwealth and our country through education, coalition building, and advocacy. Our Work Elevating the Issue of Gun Violence Prevention in Pennsylvania CeaseFirePA is a trusted voice and resource for the public, the media, and policy makers on gun violence and gun violence prevention.”

CeaseFirePA claims that over the past five years there have been more than 100 mass shootings in Pennsylvania, but the claim is linked to the long-debunked Gun Violence Archive as its data source. The Gun Violence Archive is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that provides cable news networks and other anti-gun groups with sensational, misleading and inaccurate mass-shooting data.

According to CeaseFirePA’s most recent IRS Form 990, the nonprofit has assets of approximately $1.4 million. Adam Garber, the group’s executive director, is the only paid employee and receives an annual salary of approximately $115, 000.

Garber did not respond to calls seeking his comments for this story.

Zoom meetings and emails

Many of the emails obtained by the Second Amendment Foundation were requests from Garber to schedule online Zoom meetings with the Sheriff, his staff and other senior County employees such as the District Attorney and the Sheriff’s solicitor. These meetings happened out of the public eye and no transcripts were kept.

The emails clearly show that CeaseFirePA was the driving force behind Sheriff Kilkenny’s gun dealer inspection program. In fact, the nonprofits organized and recruited the Sheriff and his top officials to participate in the program.

In an email sent August 15, 2022, Garber told the Sheriff he wanted to “connect with you about a particular avenue we’ve been working on to address the flow of crime guns.”

“Recently, Brady issued a report that found many crime guns are coming from a handful of dealers. In many cases, these dealers are likely not following existing legal requirements, let along (sic) best practices, to prevent star (sic) purchases and other potentially illegal behavior,” Garber wrote. “Under existing law, the PA State Police delegated to Sheriff’s (sic) license gun dealers. That license includes the ability to conduct inspections for compliance. It hasn’t been used much, but clearly a few ‘bad apples’ are often responsible for much of the violence we’re seeing.”

Garber added he wanted to know whether the Sheriff would “be open to using the existing authority to regularly inspect dealers for compliance.”

“I’m meeting with Governor Wolf on August 24th about this and a larger initiative from the State Police. If you’re supportive of this approach, I would love to discuss you potentially being part of that discussion or future pushes around this,” Garber wrote.

A few months later, Garber reminded the Sheriff he wanted to discuss an “Opportunity to address gun violence via dealer inspections & enforcement.”

“I wanted to bump this up. Could we schedule a meeting to discuss this? I can bring a few of our partners who’ve helped with inspection programs elsewhere,” he wrote.

Sheriff Kilkenny must have blessed the idea, most likely during one of the numerous Zoom calls. Last February, he asked Garber about documentation.

“Adam: I was wondering where we are at with the checklist?” Sheriff Kilkenny wrote.

The next day, Garber addressed a draft “discussion list” that the Brady gun-control group had designed for local law enforcement to inspect gun shops.

“Would it help if we turned it into a checklist with each thing the officer is supposed to review,” Garber asked. “I’m also wondering if you or the DA could reach out to ATF about the checklist they use. This might be a helpful tool.”

ATF inspectors don’t use checklists, said Clark of FFL Consultants.

“They have their IOI manual, but not a checklist,” Clark said. “If there was a checklist, I’d have one.”

Joe Walsh, the Sheriff’s solicitor, posed three questions to Garber in an email sent in March:

  • “What is MCSO authorized to do, if anything, in the event of a violation?”
  • “To what agency should we report our findings?”
  • “Do we only report if there are violations?”

That same month, Garber finalized the checklist but still had questions for the Sheriff.

“Thank you for your patience. I appreciate your desire to get moving,” Garber wrote. “Find a revised proposed checklist for inspections. Does the structure/format work for you? We could create a section at the bottom to total responses to develop a result score and have pass/fail to indicate if a remediation plan is necessary.”

Garber, too, had questions for the Sheriff:

  • “When do you want to start inspections?”
  • “Would any training help the deputies prepare for inspections?”
  • “Are you having deputies do this initially? Or is someone else in the department.”

A month later, the Sheriff was nearly ready to go.

“Adam: Our inspectors are working with the County Detective to go over process on May 3rd. Our Solicitor Joe Walsh is working on an ATF grading system as well as a letter to go out to the gun shops in advance of our inspections putting them on notice and stating our standards. I have had a change of heart on publicity and plan to do a press release on the day the letters go out in the mail.” Sheriff Kilkenny wrote.

What was never mentioned in the emails is how Montgomery County taxpayers are now funding expanded gun control in their own county.

No Right-to-Know

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office fought hard to keep details of the program from the public for obvious reasons. The emails reveal that the Sheriff’s firearm inspection program is haphazard at best and was created by the head of a statewide gun-control group and Sheriff’s officials who had no clue what they were doing.

In a letter sent last July, the Sheriff’s Solicitor cited numerous reasons why the Second Amendment Foundation’s Right-to-Know request was being denied, but an appeals officer for Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records thought otherwise and ordered the Sheriff’s Office to release many of the documents sought in the original Right-to-Know request.

Some of the Sheriff’s objections include:

  • To the extent that your request seeks “messages…desk calendars, appointment books…[or] working papers,” your request is denied pursuant to §67.708(b)(12) of the Act. Section 708(b)(12) exempts from disclosure “[n]otes and working papers by or for a public official or agency employee used solely for that official’s or employee’s own personal use, including telephone message slips, routing slips and other materials that do not have an official purpose.” (emphasis added).
  • Additionally, your Request for “All written and electronic communications or notes between Sheriff Kilkenny or any employee of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department and the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”)” is denied as any responsive records in the possession of the County would reflect the internal, predecisional deliberations of an agency, or predecisional deliberations between agency officials.
  • Your Request is denied in its entirety, as the responsive records are draft statements of policy prepared by or for the Department and are accordingly exempt from disclosure, which are exempt by Section 708(b)(9) of the RTKL. 65 P.S. 67.708(b)(9). No final manuals, policies, directives, or lists or remedial or corrective actions have been officially adopted, and any responsive records are draft statements of policy by or for the Department, which have not yet been adopted or made public or submitted for review or discussed at an open meeting.
  • Your request is also denied as to any potentially responsive records which fall under the protection of the attorney-client privilege and/or the attorney work product privilege, and are thus not considered “Public Records,” as defined by the Act. 65 P.S. § 67.102.
  • Furthermore, your request is denied because the County is not required to perform legal research under the Right to Know Act.

The Second Amendment Foundation will continue to follow this case and will update any significant developments.

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