SPOKANE — Sheriffs in a dozen Washington counties say they won’t enforce the state’s sweeping new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles until the courts decide whether they are constitutional.
A statewide initiative approved by voters in November raised the minimum age for buying semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, required buyers to first pass a firearms safety course and added expanded background checks and gun storage requirements, among other things. It was among the most comprehensive of a string of state-level gun-control measures enacted in the U.S. after last year’s shooting at a Florida high school.
The National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation have filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the initiative is unconstitutional. They say its purchasing requirements violate the right to bear arms and stray into the regulation of interstate commerce, which is the province of the federal government.
Sheriffs in 12 mostly rural, conservative counties — Grant, Lincoln, Okanogan, Cowlitz, Douglas, Benton, Pacific, Stevens, Yakima, Wahkiakum, Mason and Klickitat — along with the police chief of the small town of Republic, have said they will not enforce the new law until the issues are decided by the courts.
“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.”
Initiative supporters say they are disappointed but noted the sheriffs have no role in enforcing the new restrictions until July 1, when the expanded background checks take effect. The provision brings vetting for semi-automatic rifle and other gun purchases in line with the process for buying pistols.
“The political grandstanding is disheartening,” said Renee Hopkins, chief executive of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which pushed the initiative. “If they do not (run the background checks), we will have a huge problem.”
Initiative 1639 was passed by about 60 percent of Washington voters nine months after a gunman opened fire at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The sheriff’s offices in King County, which includes Seattle, and Clark County have said they will enforce the measure.
Carla Tolle of Kelso, in Cowlitz County, is an initiative supporter whose grandson was shot to death by a friend wielding a shotgun in 2017 in what was ultimately ruled an accidental shooting.
She said she was “shocked, devastated, dumbfounded” to learn Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman said he will not enforce the stricter gun rules until the legal case is resolved.
“He saw firsthand what happened with an unsecured firearm,” Tolle said. “He saw the effect on both families.”
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has criticized the initiative while also decrying “grandstanding” sheriffs who decline to enforce it.