After a series of mass shootings in the last two years leading up to the November 2018 elections and little response beyond thoughts and prayers from a Republican controlled White House and Congress, voters in Washington state decided to pass their own tougher restrictions. Gun control initiative 1639 passed with almost 60 percent approval.
But 13 sheriffs in the state publicly declared they do not care about laws or the public’s mandates. After they stated they would ignore the laws of Washington state in favor of their own opinions, Attorney General Bob Ferguson addressed the issue with an open letter outlining the consequences of law enforcement officials disobeying and disregarding laws they do not like.
The mostly rural sheriffs who intend to disregard the law questioned its constitutionality. Ferguson, who is trained in constitutional law addressed their concerns.
Initiative 1639 raises the minimum age to buy semi-automatic rifles, requires enhanced background checks for those rifles and can hold gun owners responsible for careless gun storage leading to use in a crime. The minimum age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21 went into effect, but the rest is slated for July 1.
Gun rights organizations, the NRA and Second Amendment Foundation, attempted to sue the state over their citizen passed legislation, but their suit was withdrawn. It was refiled with Washington state law enforcement members listed as the defendants.
In Ferguson’s two page response to the sheriffs’ refusals to enforce state law, he addressed law enforcements disregard for the rule of law in favor of gun rights. It is worth noting laws later deemed unconstitutional, like “stop and frisk,” do not receive law enforcement pushback but background checks before purchase on semi-automatics and an age limit on semi-automatic purchases and holding careless gun owners accountable does.
Are law enforcement officials concerned with the rights of citizens or possible reductions in gun sales?
Sheriffs refusing to follow the law claim it is unconstitutional, but fail to specify which parts of the law they object to and which parts they plan to not enforce.
In his letter, Ferguson points out that the background check that will be required beginning July 1 for semi-automatic weapons is the same one currently in use on handgun sales. So what is the issue there?
“These enhanced background checks keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals who lawfully cannot own firearms because of a mental illness or criminal record. As far as I know, no Washington sheriff or police chief has refused to perform these enhanced background checks for handguns. Why refuse to perform them for semiautomatic assault rifles?”
Ferguson outlines the issue he has with non-compliance with background checks in the excerpt below.
And not performing those checks “in good faith” bears consequences.
“However, in the event a police chief or sheriff refuses to perform the background check required by Initiative 1639, they could be held liable if there is a sale or transfer of a firearm to a dangerous individual prohibited from possessing a firearm and that individual uses that firearm to do harm.”
“In short, the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law.”
Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer had previously told media:
“My job as a sheriff is to throw bad guys in jail, but it’s also to protect the constitutional rights of citizens of our county. I follow the rule of law when I believe it’s constitutional.”
It is that component of individual law enforcement officials like Songer—who has no training in constitutional law or a law degree of any kind—deciding what laws to enforce on the basis of what they believe instead of the actual constitution or constitutional review by qualified individuals that concerns so many.
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