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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Sheriffs must uphold law – including I-1639

The Columbian
Published: February 7, 2019, 6:03am

Until a court rules otherwise, voter-approved Initiative 1639 will be the law in Washington when it is fully implemented July 1. Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins is on the proper side of the issue when he says his department will enforce the gun-control measure.

It should not be controversial for a sheriff to announce that he will uphold the law. But several law enforcement leaders throughout the state — and the prosecuting attorney in at least one county — have said they will ignore the provisions in I-1639, which was approved by 59 percent of statewide voters in November. In Clark County, the measure was approved by 54 percent of voters.

“The Clark County Sheriff’s Office will adhere to the law as passed by a vote of the people unless a court rules that it is unconstitutional,” reads a statement from Atkins’ office. His department will evaluate the statutory requirements of I-1639 and “adopt policy consistent with state law and any subsequent judicial rulings.”

Choosing to ignore a state law — particularly one dealing with deadly weapons — sets a dangerous precedent. If sheriffs pick and choose which laws are enforced, the rule of law is diminished. It often is said that the United States is a nation of laws, not people, yet those who are most likely to state that axiom often are the first to apply it arbitrarily.

Lincoln County Sheriff Wade Magers wrote that his Eastern Washington jurisdiction “has a very large voter base of citizens that are pro-Second Amendment with over 75 percent of our Lincoln County citizens voting against I-1639.” The argument, thus, is that if they don’t like a law they will ignore it. Such a misguided stance brings our state closer to anarchy and further from a constitutional republic.

There are, indeed, constitutional questions about I-1639. The measure raises the age limit for the purchase of assault weapons to 21, expands the definition of an “assault weapon” and strengthens background checks for gun purchases, among other provisions. Age limits took effect Jan. 1; the rest are scheduled to be implemented July 1. The Columbian editorially urged a “no” vote on the measure, but now that it has been passed we recognize the need for it to be enforced uniformly and for the will of the people to be upheld.

Shortly after the November election, a lawsuit led by the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation was filed in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of I-1639. “I swore an oath to defend our citizens and their constitutionally protected rights,” Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones said. “I do not believe the popular vote overrules that.” Craig Hemmens, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University in Pullman, told the Yakima Herald-Republic: “I didn’t know these sheriffs are Second Amendment scholars — that’s pretty impressive. The courts will decide that.”

And until the courts decide, Initiative 1639 is the law, a fact that must outweigh the personal feelings of an individual sheriff. Suggesting that what happens in Lincoln County or Grant County cannot impact Clark County represents a dereliction of duty on the part of law enforcement. It not only is an affront to the rule of law, it opens rogue counties to the possibility of being held accountable when a firearm purchased there is used for a crime elsewhere.

Sheriff Atkins is wise to recognize that. If critics wish to have the law overturned, they can petition the courts and the Legislature. But ignoring it should not be viewed as a viable option.