Some cops dont want to enforce new gun control laws on assault rifles.
Some cops don't want to enforce new gun control laws on assault rifles. George Frey/ Getty Images

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson fired a warning shot Tuesday at a group of rural sheriffs that are refusing to enforce the state’s new gun control laws, telling the law enforcement leaders that they “could be held liable” if a gun gets wrongly sold to someone because of their actions.

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“In short, the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law,” Ferguson said in a letter released Tuesday.

Washington’s rural law enforcement leaders have been making headlines this month as a growing group of sheriffs and police chiefs pledge not to enforce the state’s new gun laws, which are being implemented after voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 1639 last year. The new state laws include expanded background checks and an increase in the minimum age for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21. The Seattle Times added up 13 such county sheriffs that have said they wont enforce these new state laws.

So far, the sheriffs have not actually given any specifics as to what regulations they won't enforce and there's no evidence that these gun-loving sheriffs have actually done anything yet. That may be because the only new regulation that has taken effect is increasing the minimum age for purchasing a semi-automatic gun from 18 to 21, according to Tallman Trask, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility which supported Initiative 1639.

“I‘m not entirely sure what they think they would be enforcing,” Trask said. “The only thing in effect is the increased age limits. I’m not sure how sheriffs would not be enforcing them since they are not that involved, it doesn’t require them to confiscate weapons or arrest anyone.”

The sheriffs could have a bigger effect if they keep up their protests into this summer when new gun control measures including expanded background checks go into effect for semiautomatic weapons. On July 1, people that want to buy one of these types of guns must first receive an expanded background check, which includes written confirmation from their local sheriff or police chief that they can legally own the deadly weapons. Those enhanced checks require law enforcement to look up an individual’s name in federal and state databases and check to see if they have warrants or pending criminal charges. Sheriffs could potentially refuse to do this work and hand out these permission slips for these semiautomatic rifles.

The irony is these expand background checks are already required for handguns and there’s no evidence, according to Ferguson, that any of these sheriffs have refused to complete these background checks for handguns.

“Local law enforcement has been performing these enhanced background checks for all handgun purchases in Washington state for many years. These enhanced background checks keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals who lawfully cannot own firearms because of a mental illness or criminal record,” Ferguson said in Tuesday’s letter.

Trask said he predicts the opposition will gradually decrease as the gun control measures get implemented and people realize no one is actually coming for their guns. And some of the same Republican sheriffs that vocally opposed the laws when they were on the ballot have said that it’s inappropriate for them to use their policing powers to oppose the law. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told the Spokesman-Review that there’s nothing he can do, telling the paper that he won’t join the other “grandstanding” sheriffs because, in part, “The bottom line is 1639 includes nothing for a sheriff to enforce.”

Knezovich said that a group of people has been putting pressure on him and other sheriffs to put out statements saying that they won’t enforce the law, but he didn’t specify who was behind the effort. The National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation campaigned against I-1639 when it was on the ballot and have since filed a lawsuit against the measure.