Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to 262 gun dealers in counties where sheriffs have said they won't enforce the new law, known as Initiative 1639, warning that the dealers are still responsible for following the law.
For the third time in the last month, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sent a letter to the mostly rural areas in Washington where county sheriffs have threatened to not enforce the new, stricter gun laws that state voters approved last year.
On Thursday, Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to 262 gun dealers in counties where sheriffs have said they won’t enforce the new law, known as Initiative 1639. The letters warned that the dealers are still responsible for following the law, which bars the sale of semi-automatic rifles to anyone under 21 and requires enhanced background checks for those guns.
“Certain officials in your county have publicly said they will not enforce Initiative 1639 because they believe it is unconstitutional,” Inslee and Ferguson wrote. “We want to prevent you and your business from finding yourself in legal jeopardy because of a misunderstanding of the law caused by statements made by elected officials in your area.”
The letter warns that “a law is in effect until a court declares it unconstitutional. No court has declared Initiative 1639 unconstitutional.”
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“We have a Supreme Court who will make a decision about the constitutionality of this law,” Inslee said Thursday. County sheriffs, he said, have a right to speak against the law “but they do not have a right to think that they’re mini-Supreme Courts.”
The National Rifle Association and the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation have filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the law violates the U.S. and Washington constitutions and should be thrown out.
Violations of the new law can be investigated not just by local law enforcement, but also by the Washington State Patrol, the letter says, adding that any violation of state law can also be reported to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Selling a gun to someone underage can be a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The new letter follows two others from Ferguson, both sent directly to county sheriffs, one vaguely threatening and one more explanatory.
In February, Ferguson sent an open letter to county sheriffs saying they could be held liable if they refuse to perform the enhanced background checks required by I-1639 and someone who shouldn’t buy a gun is able to buy one and uses it in a crime. The letter was referring to potential lawsuits, not criminal charges, a spokeswoman for the attorney general explained.
At least 13 county sheriffs have said they won’t enforce I-1639, although few have been clear on which parts of the wide-ranging law they’re referring to. Several sheriffs who’ve said they won’t enforce the law have said they have no problem with the enhanced background checks and will conduct them without objection.
The new law also can hold gun owners responsible, in certain circumstances, if their gun was stored carelessly and is used in a crime. Most of the new law has not yet gone into effect. Only the higher age limit — raised from 18 to 21 — is now in effect; the rest of the law goes into effect July 1.
The latest letter seems to have had an immediate effect. A few gun shops around the state had previously said they would continue to sell semi-automatic rifles to teenagers because the section of law defining those guns doesn’t go into effect until July.
One of those gun shops, Talos Tactical in Richland, announced on Facebook on Thursday that it was changing course now that the state has “taken the official position that stores should not be selling semi-automatic rifles to 18-20 year olds.”
Earlier this week, Ferguson sent a second letter to county sheriffs intending to clear up “widespread misunderstanding regarding the requirements and status of the new law.”
That letter, which also linked to a new “frequently asked questions” document, pushed back on the public statements of several sheriffs that implied the new law required them to go into people’s homes to see if guns were stored properly.
The law, Ferguson stressed, does not require guns to be stored in a specific way and does not require law enforcement to investigate how guns are stored. It also does not hold gun owners liable for a stolen gun that is then used in a crime, provided the gun is reported stolen.
“You are certainly entitled to agree or disagree with the policy decision made by the voters in enacting Initiative 1639,” Inslee and Ferguson wrote in their latest letter to gun dealers, “but that does not change the obligation to comply with the law.”
Staff writer Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.