By Madeline Coats
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
The state attorney general has stepped in with a warning to more than half the state’s county law enforcement officials who say they refuse to fully enforce the gun control measures voters approved in November.
Police chiefs and sheriffs will be held liable if they refuse to perform background checks required by I-1639, said Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday in an open letter to the law enforcement officers who oppose the measure.
“I will defend Initiative 1639 against any challenge,” wrote Ferguson. “My office defeated the legal challenge to the previous gun safety initiative passed by the people, and I am confident we will defeat any constitutional challenge to Initiative 1639 as well.
“Local law enforcement 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,” he said.
The Washington State Sheriffs Association issued a statement on their website last week regarding their public opposition of I-1639. They expressed concerns about rights protected by the Second Amendment. Law enforcement officials in at least 21 of Washington’s 39 counties have said they will not actively enforce the measure.
“The initiative placed greater restrictions on law-abiding citizens while creating unreasonable expectations regarding how such restrictions would be enforced,” said the statement.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich believes Initiative 1639 is unconstitutional at the state and federal level.
“As Sheriff there is nothing, at this time, for me to enforce as it pertains to 1639,” said Knezovich in a statement from his spokesperson. “As it is now, 1639 is not constitutional, is being challenged in court and there is nothing for me to enforce.”
I-1639 was intended to increase public safety by reducing gun violence and accidents. The law creates an enhanced background check system, requires individuals to complete a firearm safety training course, raises the age of possession to 21 years old and establishes standards for safe storage of guns.
The provision with the most pushback relates to standards of gun storage. Under the measure, a person who leaves a firearm in a place where another person could potentially gain access to the weapon would be guilty of community endangerment.
According to the initiative, shootings involving semi-automatic assault rifles have resulted in hundreds of injuries and lives lost. Such incidents can have lasting psychological impacts on survivors and their communities, states I-1639. These weapons have been used in the country’s deadliest mass shootings within the past couple decades.
One week after the general election, the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation filed a joint lawsuit against Washington state and Attorney General Ferguson. The two organizations claim that the initiative violates the U.S. and Washington state constitutions.
“You can own a house or car before 21, but you can’t own a firearm to protect your house or car,” said Lars Dalseide of the National Rifle Association. The law denies protection for individuals between the ages of 18 and 21, he said.
According to the office of the Secretary of State, I-1639 was adopted as state law by nearly 60 percent of the people.
“No action by a city council or county commission can change this state law or the responsibilities and duties that the law vests in Washington’s law enforcement agencies,” said Ferguson in his letter.
The Alliance for Gun Responsibility supports the provision, said communications manager Kristen Ellingboe. She believes the law is the most comprehensive gun violence measure in the nation.
The alliance’s focus has been on trying to correct misunderstandings that have sparked opposition. While Ellingboe said there has been an overwhelming amount of support in the initiative, she is disappointed to see sheriffs and law enforcement officials oppose the law.
“We are counting on the fact that when the time really comes, the sheriffs will follow the law,” she said. “If they continue to stand in opposition, I would expect that they are opening themselves up to legal vulnerabilities.”