Gun lawsuit

If Colorado sheriffs get to decide which laws they will enforce, do the rest of us get to choose which ones we will obey? If not, what makes 54 Colorado sheriffs think they should be able to overrule the state Legislature?

That is essentially what is happening as the sheriffs of all but 10 Colorado counties signed on to sue Gov. John Hickenlooper about two gun-control bills he signed into law. Among those joining the suit were the sheriffs of all five counties in Southwest Colorado, the National Rifle Association, a number of gun dealers and firearm industry groups.

It is their contention that the laws requiring background checks for private sales of firearms and banning the sale of magazines that hold more than 15 rounds are in violation of the Second and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Those amendments respectively guarantee the right to “keep and bear arms” and equal protection under the law.

Fair enough. Citizens have a right to question the actions of their lawmakers and all Americans are entitled to see the Constitution by their own lights – understanding, of course, that the courts have the final say.

But exactly why 54 sheriffs are so worked up over this is unclear. Nothing in either law directly imposes on them, other than the general obligation they have to enforce the law. They are not required to perform background checks themselves. There is no paperwork or record-keeping required of them in connection to these laws, and there is no associated cost.

It would appear these two laws simply offend most sheriffs’ political sensibilities. But so what? Who has not been offended by the Legislature at some point? Depending on the outcome of the last election at any given moment something like a third to a half of the state’s voters are upset with the General Assembly or the governor. That does not mean we get to ignore the law.

Yet several sheriffs, including La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard, have said they plan to do just that and will not enforce the laws in question. In a phone interview, Schirard told the Herald he thinks the laws are “totally unenforceable and frankly asinine, because they won’t do anything. They’re just feel-good measures.” He further said he “can’t and won’t” enforce them.

But cannot and will not are different concepts. And while Schirard’s assessment of those two laws may well be accurate, what makes him or any other sheriff think they get to decide that?

There is nothing in human experience to suggest that lawmakers are infallible. There is nothing that says the Legislature cannot enact asinine ideas that nonetheless have the force of law.

But it is the Legislature’s job to pass those measures its members deem worthy. It is the sheriffs’ job to enforce those laws, not to pass judgment on them.

Law enforcement, of course, involves priorities and discretion. A murder is more serious than a minor theft. Drunken driving trumps jaywalking. And no one suggests selling a 30-round magazine is equivalent to rape or kidnapping.

Disagreeing with a law, however, is no reason simply to refuse to enforce it. That is not the sheriffs’ call.

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