DENVER – La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard and 53 other Colorado sheriffs sued Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday, claiming two gun bills he signed in March are unconstitutional.
The sheriffs and other plaintiffs contend that a pair of bills the Legislature passed – requiring background checks for private gun sales and banning the sale of ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds – violate the Second and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The sheriffs’ overall argument is that the bills criminalize the ownership of common guns and routine behavior, like handing a gun to a friend.
“I thought they were totally unenforceable and frankly asinine, because they won’t do anything. They’re just feel-good measures,” Schirard said in a phone interview.
Eighteen sheriffs, including Montezuma County’s Dennis Spruell, went to the Independence Institute in Denver for a Friday morning news conference announcing the lawsuit. Independence Institute researcher Dave Kopel will be the lead attorney in the case. Kopel served as an expert witness to Congress and the state Legislature against gun bills this year.
Dozens of other plaintiffs joined the lawsuit, including gun manufacturers, disabled gun owners and gun merchants, including Durango’s Goods for the Woods. The Durango store has a current inventory of guns that will become illegal to sell when the laws take effect July 1, according to the lawsuit.
Several parts of the new laws are troublesome, Kopel said. The magazine ban applies not only to magazines larger than 15 rounds, but also smaller ones that are designed to be readily converted to a larger size. That includes most magazines because they usually have a removable baseplate.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers sent a “guidance” to police around the state Friday about how the law should be enforced. The memo says a magazine shouldn’t be treated as high-capacity simply because it has a removable baseplate.
However, plaintiffs said such guidance is legally meaningless, and they want the law overturned.
The background check law requires private sellers to use a licensed gun dealer to see if their buyers are eligible. But with a $10 limit on background check fees, Kopel doubted if any gun dealers would be willing to do the work and assume the legal risk.
Several people who lost loved ones to shootings sent statements decrying the lawsuit, including Dave Hoover, a Denver-area police officer. Hoover’s nephew, AJ Boik, was killed in the Aurora movie theater massacre.
“It is disappointing to see the majority of sheriffs in this state turn gun safety and the safety of families and citizens of this state into a political issue. These laws are supported by a majority of Coloradans because they protect public safety while respecting responsible gun ownership. Let’s encourage the sheriffs to focus on public safety and enforce the laws they have sworn to uphold, instead of playing politics,” Hoover said.
Schirard said he refuses to enforce the new laws.
“To me, it’s a slap in the face as a career law-enforcement officer to hand me these things and tell me to go enforce them, which I can’t and won’t do,” he said.
Both Schirard and Spruell said no taxpayer money is being used for the lawsuit.
Suthers said his office would defend the lawsuit, although he issued a statement that was far short of zealous support for the new laws.
“In defending the lawsuit as counsel for the state, the objective of the Attorney General’s Office will be to get court rulings on the legality of various aspects of the legislation as expeditiously as possible. Colorado citizens, and law-abiding gun owners in particular, deserve such clarification,” Suthers’ statement said.
All the sheriffs from Southwest Colorado’s five counties – La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, Dolores and San Juan – joined the lawsuit. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Sheriffs in all but 10 of the state’s 64 counties signed up as plaintiffs. The sheriffs who did not join were from San Miguel, Grand, Eagle, Pueblo, Chaffee, Conejos, Boulder and Pitkin counties, plus the city-counties of Broomfield and Denver.