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Washington State Sheriffs Refusing to Enforce New Gun Control Laws

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Over the last year several states have tightened gun laws at the same time that many states have been moving to loosen restrictions. The states involved in each camp are usually motivated along party lines. In Washington, a series of new gun laws has come into effect over the last few months.

The new package of gun control laws was passed by a state voter referendum and the law received 59% of vote in favor of the new law. However, the support for the new law was very focused in urban centers while more rural sections of the state almost universally rejected the proposal.

The ballot measure raises the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, expands background check laws, especially for semi-automatic rifles and adds criminal penalties for the unsafe storage of firearms.

However, not all law enforcement officers in the state of Washington feel that the law should be enforced. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal:

More than a dozen county sheriffs in Washington state are refusing to enforce a sweeping gun-control measure that passed with the support of 59% of the state’s voters in November…

…At least 16 elected sheriffs, primarily from rural, conservative counties that voted against the measure, say they won’t enforce the law because they believe it is unconstitutional. Most have been vague about which parts they won’t impose.

The gun-control law is being challenged in court by the Second Amendment Foundation and the National Rifle Association, who argue that some of the new regulations deny people their constitutional right to bear arms. The recently filed suit is currently pending.

“I’m morally opposed to any law that’s really against our Second Amendment rights,” said Brad Manke, sheriff of Stevens County in northeast Washington, where Initiative 1639 received only 27% support. “It’s difficult to have laws forced upon you.”

The state government, however, isn’t impressed the stand the sheriffs are taking. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a letter this week, “I am deeply concerned that the failure of local law enforcement to perform Initiative 1639’s background check requirement will jeopardize public safety in our state by allowing the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles to dangerous individuals.”

He continued, “Local law enforcement officials are entitled to their opinions about the constitutionality of any law, but those personal views do not absolve us of our duty to enforce Washington laws and protect the public.”

Ferguson did concede that local law enforcement does have the authority and ability to prioritize which laws it is most actively enforcing, he said, “Enforcement discretion, however, cannot subvert the rule of law.”

The most prominent example of enforcement discretion comes in the form of local law enforcement ignoring or only partially enforcing laws in relation to marijuana, which has been legalized or decriminalized in many parts of the country despite remaining illegal on the federal level.

Some sheriffs oppose the new law, but aren’t joining in the protest and accuse their peers of “political grandstanding.” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is one law enforcement official who doesn’t support the law, but also doesn’t plan on protesting it, mainly because he says there isn’t anything to enforce right now. “Basically, it’s political,” he said. “It wins points at home in counties that it didn’t pass.”

Only time will tell how actively the new Washington law is actually enforced.