Last week, out-of-towners flooded a council meeting in the 800-person community of Gilberton, in eastern Pennsylvania. Some carried signs that read “Impeach Obama, Mark Kessler for President” and “Legalize the Constitution.” Others just carried guns.
Police Chief Mark Kessler—who oversees only himself, the lone policeman in the borough of Gilberton—was facing disciplinary action for a series of ranting YouTube videos that went viral in mid-July. They show the bald, burly Kessler telling “all you libtards” to “take it in the ass,” then firing a series of weapons into the woods beyond the camera frame. In one video, he calls the paper clown he is using for target practice “crazy Nancy...the Speaker of the House.” In another, he stands before his perforated target and crows, "Here we go. That's gun control. Right in the face."
Realizing the council might suspend him, Kessler had put out a call on Facebook, summoning other gun rights enthusiasts and members of the “Constitutional Security Force,” a Second Amendment group he founded during the push for federal gun laws this winter, to support him at the council meeting. “I will not stand idle while tyrants attack the constitution,” he wrote. “If they want to fire the first shot let it begin right here in Schuylkill county ... Every militia, every csf member who can attend please do ... So come with your flags n your firearms.”
Over fifty people, including a few out-of-state militia members, heeded his call. They set up what gun control advocate Michael Morrill, of the statewide group Keystone Progress, called “a perimeter” around the council meeting, which took place in a room of the small town’s sewer plant (the only building the borough owns). The heavily-armed crowd clearly unnerved the few townspeople who showed up. “You know why there's not more residents here? The threats. That's why. Because they're afraid,” one lifelong resident told the Lehigh Valley Morning Call. “They're afraid they're going to have their windows shot out.” A man who lives just outside Gilberton called Kessler a “nut” and said his wife is afraid to stop in the borough. Kessler, for his part, told me his supporters were “very responsible, very respectful” and “just recognizing their constitutional right.” He said four were militia members, and the rest were “just American patriots.” At the end of the meeting, the council voted 5-1 to suspend Kessler for 30 days.
In the days since, the chief has only ramped up the vitriol online. “I am about to embark on a battle for which I will only meet head on, regardless of THE out come I refuse to be a political victim, a coward lead by tyrants, dictators or political hacks!” Kessler, an independent, wrote on his website, citing the council president and vice president, both Democrats. A few local officials and many more advocates across the state are insisting he be fired. But others say it’s a wonder that Kessler was suspended at all—that he proved too trigger-happy for one of the most gun-loving municipalities in America.
Gilberton is a borough of Schuylkill County, a region that was built by coal and still depends on it. At last count, the borough was 98 percent white with a median household income of $24,000 a year. Last fall, 56 percent of Schuylkill County, home to nearly 150,000 residents, voted for Romney, versus 43 percent for Obama. In 2011, the latest year for which data is available, there were 2,641 gun license holders in Schuylkill County, a 30 percent increase from five years earlier. And, as they did across the country, permit applications spiked in Schuylkill after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
This January, Kessler drafted a resolution “nullifying” any gun control legislation at the state and federal level that goes against the letter of the Second Amendment; it passed the Gilberton council unanimously. In the months since, towns across the country—and the entire state of Kansas—have passed similar laws, and Kessler told me he believes he deserves some of the credit. “I sent that far and wide,” he said. “That all started in Gilberton Borough. I have truly changed the course of history for our country.”
Kessler told me he has been devoted to gun rights “my whole life” thanks to his dad, a Vietnam vet. Like many players in the gun debate, he says he was jolted into action by the Sandy Hook shooting. “My heart goes out to all those families,” he said, but he blames the shooter Adam Lanza, not the gun. He started CSF around the same time because, he says, “I realized, there’s a much bigger picture than just my little borough. People were looking for some kind of direction… some kind of hope.” He insists the group is “not a militia”—as some outlets have characterized it—and its primary activities seem to be selling T-shirts and providing training such as a “tactical pistol course.” But the group’s “oath” includes, “I WILL RESPOND TO THE CALL IF I AM EVER NEEDED TO RESIST TYRANNY THAT SEEKS TO DESTROY OUR REPUBLIC,” and the site also has a list of “Anti American Organizations”—among them a local news station and the Southern Poverty Law Center—and their addresses.
Kessler was hired as Gilberton's sole protector 14 years ago—and the borough has turned a blind eye to his antics ever since. He once pulled a gun to break up a fight in a “packed” bar and accidentally shot himself in the hand. In another incident, he shot and killed a family’s dog, which he said was attacking him. Two years ago, he arrested and strip-searched a Gilberton councilman for using profanity in a complaint left on Kessler's voicemail about unruly teenagers in the neighborhood.
This time, too, at least some residents seemed ready to look the other way. “He's a little rough around the edges, but he doesn't come off as a bad guy,” one man told the Call after the videos went viral. “He does his job, gets both sides of every story. I know he's a big gun advocate, but that [is] just part of our freedom.” A number of people wrote into the Call to say that Kessler may have been out of line, but was solidly protected by the first amendment. Gilberton Mayor Mary Lou Hannon agreed. "Each member of council, each employee and each citizen is not only entitled to their own political opinions, but also the right to express them," she said just days before the council meeting. "We will not take action to quash free speech, whether or not each member of council or any member of council agrees with it." Thus, the debate about Kessler’s punishment has centered on whether he identified himself as a police officer in the videos (sometimes yes, sometimes no) and whether he was on private property (yes) and his own time (yes)—but not on whether his targeted insults in the videos, and his subsequent, aggressive call to action on his website, constituted inappropriate speech for a public servant, or even a possible incitement of violence.
When it started to look like Kessler would get off scot-free, progressive groups—among them Keystone Progress, Change.org, and CeaseFirePA—petitioned for his ouster. They dumped roughly 30,000 signatures on Hannon’s desk, and she started talking about suspending Kessler for misusing borough property by shooting municipality-owned guns in the videos. The mayor may have miscalculated, as her charge brought to light Gilberton’s disproportionately large arsenal. Kessler and the borough both say he purchased the firearms, including high-end assault rifles like an M-16 and an AR-15, with his own money, and donated them to the police department. (In Pennsylvania, an ordinary civilian can own an automatic weapon if it is registered, but a police officer can buy one for less, and pay fewer taxes on it.) But some have questioned how Kessler, who made only $24,000 a year, could have afforded such a stockpile, and news broke Monday that the borough solicitor has demanded an inventory of Kessler’s firearms—it seems no one knows how many there are—fueling suspicion that the taxpayers may have unwittingly borne some of the cost.
Kessler emphatically denies that. “You name it, from flashlights, to uniforms, to boots, to ammunition… I bought all of it out of my own pocket,” he told me. “If I didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have it. No good deed goes unpunished, let’s put it that way.”
Where are all those guns now? Kessler said he has only one of them at his house, and that the borough has the rest. But that’s far from clear, since the solicitor’s letter said, along with an inventory, “We also need to know the location of these guns.” Gilberton council members refused to comment for this story, and the mayor, solicitor, and emergency coordinator did not return multiple calls. As Morrill pointed out, the borough, with its scant sewer plant office, has “no place to secure those things.”
Whether or not he realized I was a total “libtard,” Kessler was perfectly nice when I called him on the phone. He has hired a lawyer, Joseph Nahas, and says he’ll sue Gilberton if they try to fire him at the end of his suspension. In addition to the free speech argument, his lawyer said at a press conference Tuesday that he’s prepared to accuse Democratic council member Eric Boxer of “strong-arming” townspeople into speaking against Kessler at the meeting. “He made comments such as, ‘We let you go with your grass being too high and did not fine you when everyone else got cited. With that said, we would like you to come to the meeting to denounce Mr. Kessler,’” Nahas said. (The school board, of which Kessler is a member, and the state police chiefs association, of which he's never been a member, have both publicly disowned him.)
Kessler seems torn between the desire to get his job back and the impulse to push the envelope further. On Tuesday, he told me he’s “done playing politics.” But on Wednesday, I woke up to find new, pointed denunciations of the Gilberton borough council on his website. Kessler says this whole affair has taken a toll on his marriage and his family, that he's been receiving death threats since the controversy began. (His cell phone number is prominently displayed on his website; the voicemail message says, “To leave a death threat, press one. Otherwise, press two.”) Since he was suspended without pay, he started a GoFundMe to “help the Chief pay his bills—buy groceries to feed his kids—pay the mortgage etc.”
Meanwhile, Kessler's shenanigans have created strange bedfellows, pissing off not just liberals but gun proponents, too. Chris Bianchi, whose company Domari Nolo Outfitters pulled out of the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show as soon as it banned AR-15s, told the Patriot-News, “To the people on the fence who don't understand the importance of personal firearm ownership, this guy looks like a wing nut and pushes them away. I think he's doing more damage to the movement than he is raising awareness." But Kessler is undeterred. If he gets fired, he said, “I’ll keep running my organization full-time… and keep fighting for the Constitution.”
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.