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Can Local Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Washington’s Gun Control Laws?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Most sheriffs in Washington State are elected officials.  This year several county sheriffs have said publicly that they will refused to enforce a state gun control law that was passed last year by a voter approved initiative.  The state’s attorney general and other law enforcement officials have said that while local sheriffs have broad discretion over how to enforce state laws they may not unilaterally decline to enforce a law absent a court determination that the law violates the federal or the state constitution.  Can sheriffs refuse to enforce state laws with which they disagree?

Initiative 1639

In November of 2018, Washington voters approved Initiative 1639—an initiative presented to the public as a way to reduce violent incidents where guns are involved— with 60 percent of the popular vote.

The initiative was implemented in two phases.  On January 1st, 2019, the age of purchase and possession of semiautomatic firearms was increased from 21 to 18.  Beginning in July the law added expanded background checks and a 10-day waiting period to acquire a gun, and creates firearm storage requirements.

Sheriffs representing more than a dozen counties in the state—most in the more rural areas of the state like Lincoln, Klickitat, and Yakima Counties— have publicly stated they will refuse to enforce the new regulations, citing constituent concerns, their belief that the law violates the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and an ongoing lawsuit against Initiative 1639, as reasons to not comply with the measure.

Sheriffs are Unique in U.S. Law Enforcement

Sheriffs in the United States take an oath upon entering office to perform a variety of actions such as keeping the peace, enforcing state laws, and/or defending their state’s constitution.  Not every sheriff shares the same responsibilities, but their central function is in the enforcement of state and local laws.  However, unlike most other law enforcement officials, county sheriffs are elected, adding a separate political dimension to their office.  Only two states do not have local sheriffs: Connecticut has no county governments with which to support a sheriff’s office, and Alaska has no counties at all.

Some sheriffs who are elected to office argue that they have a separate electoral mandate to consider constituents’ views and make independent determinations whether a law violates the state or federal constitution, and, if so, they may refuse to enforce it until a court declares otherwise.

Other Examples of Enforcement Refusal

According to Cornell Clayton, a professor of political science at WSU, the debate over the enforcement of I-1639 is not the only recent instance in which law enforcement officials have refused to comply with state or federal laws.  On the matter of immigration enforcement, sheriffs in states such as California and North Carolina took public stands against supporting federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents tasked by the Trump administration with conducting immigration raids.  These sheriffs claimed helping the federal agency would erode public trust in their office, particularly among immigrant and mixed-status communities.

More broadly, many state and local law enforcement agencies have not enforced federal laws pertaining to the sale and possession of marijuana.  To date some 36 states have legalized some form of marijuana possession, meaning that many sheriffs in these states do not enforce federal laws out of deference to the competing state law.  Since the federal government has not taken legal action against states that have legalized marijuana, sheriffs in these states however face no legal conflict.

Even on the matters of gun safety, Washington’s dispute is not unique.  In 2013 Colorado voters passed a measure similar to I-1639, leading some rural sheriffs there to announce that they would refuse to enforce what they claimed to be a vaguely-worded law that conflicted with the 2nd Amendment.

What Might Happen Next with I-1639

Washington’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a letter in February of 2019 to the sheriffs refusing to enforce the provisions of I-1639, stating that they should enforce the voters’ will.  Ferguson, who is elected state-wide as the state’s chief law enforcement official, argues that other instances of enforcement refusal on issues of immigration and marijuana are different because they involved instances of a conflict between federal law and state law.  I-1639, according to Ferguson, is a valid law that does not conflict with the state’s constitution.  Accordingly, only the state courts can find the law unconstitutional, and therefore unenforceable.

Clayton said “county and municipal law enforcement officers may not constitutionally violate or ignore valid state laws, but practically it is difficult for the state to force local sheriffs to actively enforce the gun control law.  The constitutionality of the law ultimately will be settled by the courts.”

Politically, the public refusal to enforce a popularly enacted law may lead to public protest or future electoral opposition to elected sheriffs.  On the other hand, a sheriff’s refusal to enforce may be politically popular in some areas of the state.  Regardless of how one feels about a sheriff’s decision to not comply with a state or federal dictate, voters have more power than they may realize to influence further action surrounding such a decision.