Sheriffs who object to Washington’s new gun law may protest with their words, while continuing to enforce the law.
After their elections, county sheriffs take an oath to uphold the laws of the country, state and county — even when they disagree.
At least 13 county sheriffs have said they won’t enforce the state’s new gun law, Initiative 1639. They must reconsider, enforce the law as it is and find another, legal way to protest. Not to do so is to flout their oath and responsibility to citizens.
And, as Attorney General Bob Ferguson warns in a sharply worded letter, the sheriffs would be held liable in the case of a gun sale that could have been prevented by the new background checks and then someone uses that gun in a crime. These elected officials should be accountable for doing their jobs.
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The courts will determine whether the wide-ranging new gun law is constitutional or not. It raises the age to 21 to buy semi-automatic rifles, requires enhanced background checks for those purchases and can hold gun owners responsible if their weapon was stored carelessly and is used in a crime.
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The National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation are pursuing such a court decision with a lawsuit they filed in federal court. If the sheriffs — from Adams, Benton, Ferry, Franklin, Grant, Grays Harbor, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Mason, Pacific, Stevens and Yakima counties — want to join that lawsuit, and their county ethics laws allow it, they could.
The sheriffs have not clarified what part of the law they plan not to enforce,with journalists who have asked. Gun stores could lose their licenses if they sell to someone under age, regardless of whether their county sheriff will look the other way.
Sheriffs and other law-enforcement officers are already doing the enhanced background checks for handgun purchases, so refusing to do so for semi-automatic rifles would be illogical. At least one sheriff, Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond, said he would follow the new rules concerning background checks and a 10-day waiting period. Their main responsibility under the new law is to check at least three state and federal databases for outstanding warrants and pending criminal charges.
“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,” Ferguson wrote in a letter to law enforcement.
The First Amendment protects the right of free speech for county sheriffs and all of us. They may continue to object to the law with their words. But their actions must stick to their oath of office, in which they promised to uphold the law of their county, state and country.