Sheriffs in Grays Harbor, Pacific, Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat, Grant, Benton, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties have all said they will not enforce the new law.
In November, Washington voters spoke overwhelmingly, passing with nearly 60 percent of the vote a sweeping array of new gun regulations.
But, it turns out, voters might not have had the last word.
In at least 13 mostly rural counties across Washington, from the Pacific Coast to the eastern wheat fields, county sheriffs have publicly pledged not to enforce the new law, known as Initiative 1639, citing their personal opposition to it.
“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,” said Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer, who said he will not be enforcing the new law. “I follow the rule of law when I believe it’s constitutional.”
Sheriffs in Grays Harbor, Pacific, Mason, Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat, Grant, Benton, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties — where majorities of voters opposed 1639 — have all said they will not enforce the new law.
In King County, which has close to three times as many voters as those 13 counties combined, 76 percent supported the ballot measure and Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht co-wrote the argument in favor of it in the state voters’ guide. Last week, she said the initiative “can be refined,” but that it’s up to the courts to determine its constitutionality.
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“I took an oath to uphold the law,” Johanknecht said in a prepared statement. “As law enforcement leaders, we defy that oath and betray the public trust if we pick and choose which laws we will uphold.”
Songer and other sheriffs noted that officers use discretion all the time to determine which laws are enforcement priorities. Every time an officer sees a car driving over the speed limit he uses discretion in how to enforce the law. And several big cities in states where marijuana remains illegal have drastically scaled back possession arrests, citing both racial disparities in enforcement and a lack of resources.
Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington and a former federal prosecutor, said the gun law is different because the sheriffs are laying out their motivations so bluntly.
“What’s atypical about this situation is they’re not saying ‘Hey, we have limited resources so we’re going to figure out how to best use them,’ ” Fan said. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t agree with the people and so even though we are the people’s public servants we’re not going to enforce that law.’ ”
I-1639 was the most ambitious gun-regulations ballot measure in state history. It makes it illegal for anyone under 21 to buy a semi-automatic rifle, the same as it is for handguns. It requires 10-day waiting periods and more thorough background checks for anyone buying those rifles. And if a teenager or someone who can’t legally own a gun uses one in a crime, the gun owner could be held responsible, if the gun was stored carelessly.
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. The state Attorney General’s office asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on procedural grounds, since most of the law has not yet gone into effect.
Courts determine the constitutionality of laws, but many of the sheriffs have taken it into their own hands, declining to wait for courts to rule.
Adams County Sheriff Dale Wagner wrote that I-1639 “appears to violate the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution” and that he would not enforce it.
It’s not clear which section of the wide-ranging law Wagner thinks is unconstitutional, and he did not respond to requests for comment.
The higher age limit to buy a weapon is new for semi-automatic rifles, but not a new concept. Washington has long banned handgun sales to anyone under 21. The United States banned the sale of certain semi-automatic rifles from 1994 until the ban’s expiration in 2004, and at least five states and the District of Columbia continue to ban such weapons.
At least 16 states impose some kind of criminal liability on a firearms owner if a gun is improperly stored and a child carries or uses it, according to a 2016 report by the Boston University School of Public Health.
For the moment, there’s little for the sheriffs to enforce anyway.
The only portion of the law that’s gone into effect so far is the higher age limit for purchases of semi-automatic rifles. The rest of the law is scheduled to go into effect July 1.
What if, for instance, a gun shop decides to sell a semi-automatic rifle to a 19-year-old, which could be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison?
“I don’t think you’re going to find any gun shops that are going to sell guns to someone under 21,” said Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond, who’s also said he won’t enforce the law. But if it did happen, “we would properly report, we wouldn’t arrest anyone.”
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said that represents the status-quo situation and would qualify as enforcing the law.
She said the sheriffs are using “NRA-inspired rhetoric” but aren’t citing any specific parts of the law they plan to not enforce.
“That sheriff is still complying with 1639,” Smith said. “They are saying things that make it sound like they are taking a defiant stand, but according to the people who know the law and law enforcement, those words aren’t translating into anything other than rhetorical grandstanding.”
Once the law goes into full effect, sheriffs or local police departments will be responsible for conducting enhanced background checks on people who attempt to buy a semi-automatic rifle. Those checks — which are already done on people attempting to buy a handgun — include searching at least three state and federal databases and checking for outstanding warrants and pending criminal charges.
Sheriffs departments had previously argued that this would significantly add to their workloads, but Raymond said his department would carry out its duties under this section of the law.
“I’m all for the longer waiting periods, the check-ins and double check-ins, I am clearly for that,” he said. “Certainly we’re going to follow all of those type of things.”
Some sheriffs — even those who opposed the passage of I-1639 — have criticized their colleagues for saying they wouldn’t enforce the law.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he thought the initiative was unconstitutional but accused the other sheriffs of “grandstanding.”
“It’s a slippery slope when we decide what laws we are or aren’t going to enforce,” he told The Spokesman-Review.
Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett wrote an Op-Ed last year opposing I-1639.
But since the initiative’s passage, he’s taken a different tack than some of his colleagues.
“I don’t think it’s my opinion that matters so much as the courts’, and there’s a system there that we have to follow,” Burnett said in a local radio interview. “As soon as we no longer follow that system, then we’re going to walk away and abandon everything that America was created for.”