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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.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: An unenforced law is worse than no law at all

The Columbian
Published: September 13, 2022, 6:03am

The Revised Code of Washington — the laws of the state — includes 101 titles, each with multiple chapters. The headings of those chapters range from the basic such as “Treason” to the esoteric such as “Abandoned and historic cemeteries and historic graves.”

In other words, Washington has a lot of laws. And the odds are that even the most nimble legal minds cannot keep track of them all. Add that to myriad municipal and federal laws (the U.S. Tax Code alone is 6,871 pages), and the difficulty in following the law — and enforcing it — is evident.

Which brings up a discussion surrounding Initiative 1639, a series of gun-control measures that passed with 59 percent of the statewide vote in 2018. I-1639 requires secure gun storage, raises the minimum age for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle to 21 and requires enhanced background checks.

It also, as Crosscut.com recently reported, “directed state officials to determine how to conduct annual background checks on current owners of pistols and semiautomatic rifles to make sure they’re still legally allowed to possess them.” But, as the report notes, “state officials haven’t implemented annual checks of pistol and semiautomatic rifle owners — and they have no concrete plans to do so.”

The fundamental questions: What good is a law if it is not enforced? And what impact does ignoring a particular law have on the behavior of the public?

As the introduction to a 2016 paper from the New York University School of Law explains: “Unenforced laws are deemed problematic because non-compliance may undermine the rule of law. When individuals observe law breaking without repercussion, the perceived lawlessness may erode the authority of the law and public respect for legal rules in general.”

Whether it involves immigration enforcement or vandalism or gun control, a failure to enforce laws has a deleterious effect, diminishing the societal code we have agreed to follow.

In some ways, this is related to the current campaign for Clark County sheriff. One of the final two candidates, Rey Reynolds, has argued that he is the arbiter of which laws are constitutional and that he will not enforce laws that do not meet his standards.

But the issue goes well beyond a single race for the county’s top law-enforcement position. It speaks to the social compact by which we agree that if the public or its elected representatives pass a law, it is expected to be followed. When voters tell state officials to implement annual background checks on gun owners, those officials should follow through.

Following the passage of I-1639, the state Department of Licensing was tasked with developing a “cost-effective and efficient process” for conducting annual background checks, according to Crosscut. In July 2020, department officials concluded that such a program was not feasible, and Gov. Jay Inslee has said the Legislature likely will need to weigh in on the process. “The issue is that there is not a way to legally conduct the check under our current system,” an Inslee spokesperson said.

It should be noted that background checks for new gun purchases are, indeed, conducted in Washington. But voters in 2018 said they desire annual background checks for gun owners; if somebody is flagged in such a check, local law enforcement is notified and instructed to “take steps to ensure such persons are not illegally in possession of firearms.”

That in itself can be problematic. But it should not obfuscate the larger problem — an unenforced law is worse than no law at all.