Police chiefs who refuse to enforce Washington state’s new gun restrictions could be liable if that refusal results in someone buying a gun and committing a crime, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson says.
The new law, ballot Initiative 1639, adds background checks for buyers of semiautomatic assault rifles, and includes storage requirements and waiting periods for buying firearms. It also raises the age to buy semiautomatic rifles to 21.
The section raising the minimum purchasing age went into effect January 1. The rest of the law, including the enhanced background checks, is to be implemented July 1. The new background checks would be identical to those the state has been performing for handgun buyers for years.
The Seattle Times reported that sheriffs from 13 of the state’s 39 counties have signaled they won’t enforce the law. The Chinook Observer put that number at 20.
In an open letter on Tuesday, Ferguson called out police chiefs and sheriffs who are refusing to enforce the law: “In the event a police chief or sheriff refuses to perform the background check required by Initiative 1639, they could be held liable if there is a sale or transfer of a firearm to a dangerous individual prohibited from possessing a firearm and that individual uses that firearm to do harm.”
The letter also said, “Local law enforcement officials 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.”
The sheriff for Pacific County, a coastal county where 58% of voters opposed the measure, published a statement saying his office “will continue to investigate all complaints from our community members but until the legality of Initiative 1639 is resolved by the courts these initiative matters will be documented only.”
Barbara Smith, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Sheriffs’ Association, noted that sheriffs in the state are elected officials and each sheriff would direct local enforcement decisions. She pointed to the WSSA’s statement, posted the day after I-1639 went into effect, noting that the state’s sheriff’s association had publicly opposed I-1639’s new gun measures before the election.
Despite its opposition to the ballot initiative, the WSSA statement called on state residents to balance “our opinions and beliefs on this issue” with commitment to the rule of law and urged all involved to “resolve our differences within the framework of the Constitution.”
The attorney general’s open letter noted that local law enforcement has discretion to prioritize its resources, but said, “Enforcement discretion, however, cannot subvert the rule of law.”
To get the measure on the ballot, proponents of the law faced three lawsuits seeking to block it from the ballot, and eventually won a decision from the state’s Supreme Court to let the voters decide.
A number of plaintiffs, including two 19-year-olds and two 20-year-olds, as well as gun shop owners, have filed a lawsuit against local officials who are enforcing the law and Washington’s Department of Licensing. The suit argues that raising the minimum purchasing age for assault rifles infringes on their Second Amendment rights.
Ferguson’s letter states, “Like all laws passed by the people of Washington and their representatives, Initiative 1639 is presumed constitutional. No court has ruled that this initiative is unconstitutional.”
The Giffords Law Center lists five other states – California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Vermont – as having raised the minimum age to buy a long gun (which includes rifles and shotguns) from 18 to 21.