After the Aurora theater shootings in Colorado and the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, Colorado’s state legislature passed a package of gun laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — which have been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control.
But their victory may well be pyrrhic because 55 of the 62 elected county sheriffs in Colorado have signed on to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes.
More than that, some sheriffs, like Weld County Sheriff John Cooke, are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it.
Erica Goode reports from Greeley, Colorado, for The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2013, that the resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high. Some examples:
- In New York State, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed one of the toughest gun law packages in the nation last January, two sheriffs have said publicly they would not enforce the laws. But the sheriffs’ refusal is unlikely to have much effect in the state because, according to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, since 2010 the vast majority of felony gun charges are filed by the state or local police instead of by sheriffs.
- In Florida‘s Liberty County, a jury in October acquitted Sheriff Nick Finch who had been suspended and charged with misconduct after he released a man arrested by a deputy on charges of carrying a concealed firearm. The sheriff, who was immediately reinstated by the governor, said he was protecting the man’s Second Amendment rights.
- In California, a delegation of sheriffs met with Gov. Jerry Brown this fall to try to persuade him to veto gun bills passed by the Legislature, including measures banning semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and lead ammunition for hunting (Brown signed the ammunition bill but vetoed the bill outlawing the rifles).
- California Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon E. Lopey, who had met with Gov. Brown, said enforcing gun laws was not a priority for him and that “Our way of life means nothing to these politicians, and our interests are not being promoted in the legislative halls of Sacramento or Washington, D.C.” He added that residents of his rural region near the Oregon border are equally frustrated by regulations imposed by the federal Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
NYT reporter Erica Goode claims that “sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun laws around the country are in the minority.” But she admits that “no statistics exist,” which begs the question how she knows that refusenik sheriffs are in the minority?
Back in Colorado, the new gun laws have become political flash points. Two state senators who supported the legislation were recalled in elections in September; a third resigned last month rather than face a recall. Efforts to repeal the statutes are already in the works.
Countering the elected sheriffs are some police chiefs, especially in urban areas, and state officials who say that the laws are not only enforceable but that they are already having an effect. Most gun stores have stopped selling the high-capacity magazines for personal use, although one sheriff acknowledged that some stores continued to sell them illegally. Some people who are selling or otherwise transferring guns privately are seeking background checks.
Eric Brown, a spokesman for Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado, said, “Particularly on background checks, the numbers show the law is working.” The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has run 3,445 checks on private sales since the law went into effect, he said, and has denied gun sales to 70 people.
A Federal District Court judge last month ruled against a claim in the Colorado sheriffs’ lawsuit that one part of the magazine law was unconstitutionally vague. The judge also ruled that while the sheriffs could sue as individuals, they had no standing to sue in their official capacity.
Still, the state’s top law enforcement officials acknowledged that sheriffs had wide discretion in enforcing state laws. Colorado Department of Public Safety spokesman Lance Clem said, “We’re not in the position of telling sheriffs and chiefs what to do or not to do. We have people calling us all the time, thinking they’ve got an issue with their sheriff, and we tell them we don’t have the authority to intervene.”
The views of sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun laws echo the stand of Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and the author of The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope. Mack argues that county sheriffs are the ultimate arbiters of what is constitutional and what is not. The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, founded by Mack, is an organization of sheriffs and other officers who support his views.
Mack said in an interview, “The Supreme Court does not run my office. Just because they allow something doesn’t mean that a good constitutional sheriff is going to do it.” 250 sheriffs from around the country attended the association’s recent convention.
Matthew J. Parlow, a law professor at Marquette University, said that some states, including New York, had laws that allowed the governor in some circumstances to investigate and remove public officials who engaged in egregious misconduct — laws that in theory might allow the removal of sheriffs who failed to enforce state statutes. But many governors could be reluctant to use such powers. And in most cases, any penalty for a sheriff who chose not to enforce state law would have to come from voters.
Colorado Sheriff John Cooke, who is running for the State Senate in 2014, says he is entitled to use discretion in enforcement, especially when he believed the laws were wrong or unenforceable. “In my oath it says I’ll uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Colorado. It doesn’t say I have to uphold every law passed by the Legislature.”
Click here for Sheriff Cooke’s website!
- “140 U.S. Sheriffs meet to take back America,” Feb. 2, 2012.
- “U.S. County Sheriffs say ‘no’ to Obama gun control,” Jan. 22, 2013.
- “Delaware leads nationwide move to strip county sheriffs of power,” Jan. 31, 2013.
Dr. Eowyn is the Editor of Fellowship of the Minds.