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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: Defiance of gun laws call for accountability

The Columbian
Published: September 27, 2023, 6:03am

In filing a lawsuit against a Kelso gun store, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has done more than defend Washington law. He also has placed a spotlight on growing defiance to the legal norms that separate civilization from chaos.

Clark County voters likely can understand that difference. Last year, a candidate for county sheriff insisted that he would not enforce gun control measures passed by voters statewide. That candidate was defeated in the general election, but in comparing his stance to that of civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he demonstrated the self-inflated righteousness that is tearing at the fabric of our communities.

As a columnist for The Columbian wrote at the time: “King was a civilian community leader and Parks was a citizen. Fighting injustice as a private citizen is a courageous act; doing so as an elected law-enforcement official is a dictatorial one. When those in power establish themselves as the sole referee in determining what is constitutional, we devolve into a totalitarian state.”

Given that, the actions of Walter Wentz, owner of Gator’s Custom Guns in Kelso, might qualify as courageous. Yet they also require accountability under the law as defined by the courts.

Last year, as part of a series of gun-control measures, the Legislature passed a law allowing Ferguson’s office to sue the gun industry. In the case of Gator’s Custom Guns, the suit revolves around the alleged sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, an act that has been prohibited in Washington since 2022.

The lawsuit alleges that Wentz imported more than 11,400 high-capacity magazines after the prohibition went into effect. The gun dealer could face penalties of up to $7,500 for each magazine displayed or sold.

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen and the new chair of the Washington Republican Party, suggested that Ferguson “stumbled into a trap” by suing a dealer who is eager to “trigger a legal action” and challenge the state’s gun laws. “The attorney general’s lawsuit against Gator’s Custom Guns is full of overwrought rhetoric and has weaponized a constitutionally dubious state law,” a statement from Walsh read.

Citizens throughout Washington should welcome that challenge. And they should abide by whatever the courts decide is constitutional.

Therein lies the issue. From high-ranking officials of the Trump administration ignoring congressional subpoenas to state legislatures defying orders by the U.S. Supreme Court to a failed presidential candidate ignoring more than 60 court rulings reminding him that he lost, the rule of law is being diminished throughout the country.

In an age of polarized politics, tribalism has been placed ahead of a shared national code of conduct. And when such piety is criticized, delusional claims of persecution or attacks on the critics become the fallback strategy.

A state attorney general is not above the law, but he or she is bound by duty to uphold the law as it is currently defined. Until a court rules otherwise, the importation or sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines in Washington is illegal, and citizens are welcome to challenge that law.

Critics have taken aim at Ferguson’s long-standing efforts to support and enforce laws designed to reduce gun violence in Washington. They can disagree with those efforts, but if elected lawmakers pass legislation that the courts deem to be constitutional, it is the duty of all residents to follow it.

Sanctimony in defiance of the law is not a virtue.