Local law enforcement agency leaders are split on whether officers and deputies will enforce the voter-approved gun safety law.
Columbia County Sheriff Joe Helm announced Monday he will not direct deputies to enforce Initiative 1639, while Walla Walla County Sheriff Mark Crider, College Place Police Chief Troy Tomaras and Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber last week released a joint statement supporting the law.
All said they believe it will be overturned in court.
The initiative raises the age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21, requires buyers to complete a firearm safety course, adds enhanced background checks, and can hold gun owners accountable if someone uses their firearm to harm anyone, among other things. The age requirements went into effect on Jan. 1, and the other provisions are set to start July 1.
“I was opposed to it at the beginning,” Helm said, adding the law’s “vagueness” and presentation made it “unenforceable.”
“I don’t want to get caught up in it because I need to stay focused on what’s happening right now,” he said, adding that included burglaries, drugs and other cases. He also said he took a vow to uphold the U.S. and Washington constitutions, and the law as it is now violates those.
“As Sheriff of Columbia County, I take this position as your last line of defense against unconstitutional laws very seriously. I agree with many other sheriffs in our state. Therefore, I am instructing my deputies not to enforce 1639 while the constitutional validity remains in argument at the court level. Deputies will document such matters. If the courts later determine the constitutional validity of the law, I will partner with the prosecutor’s office to determine the best course of action,” Helm said in a statement.
Columbia County Prosecuting Attorney Dale Slack said the overall picture is that people “need to take an actual look at what I-1639 does in reality before they assess these statements by sheriffs and prosecutors that they will or will not ‘enforce’ it.”
He said the law didn’t provide much for law enforcement to enforce.
“I don’t think there is a law I could say (Helm) is breaking by making this statement,” Slack said. “He has a pretty wide amount of discretion in the types of crimes he chooses to spend his limited resources investigating — just as our office has wide discretion in what cases we prosecute.”
Crider said he didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“It’s not a decision,” he said. “All law enforcement take a vow to uphold the state and U.S. constitutions.”
Bieber echoed the statement.
“We are in a country that believes in the rule of law,” he said. “As a police officer, I don’t have the luxury of deciding which laws to enforce and which ones not to; that is the judiciary’s role and responsibility.”
The joint statement last week also used the same language as a Washington State Sheriffs’ Association’s post online, which says while the group opposed I-1639 before the election, it will “enforce all laws equally whether we agree with them or not.”
That statement also said the law “placed greater restrictions on law-abiding citizens while creating unreasonable expectations regarding how such restrictions would be enforced.”
Crider opposed the initiative, “but it was voted by Washington state residents into law. Until it goes through the court system, I don’t have any other choice than to follow the law... I feel once it gets through the court system it will be overturned.”
Bieber noted few laws do not allow for some latitude on enforcement.
“That’s for officer discretion,” Bieber said. “Our department is choosing to use our discretion in how and when to enforce the provisions of the law until it has its day in court.”
Crider said each deputy has some flexibility when enforcing laws, such as giving people warnings or tickets for speeding, and he said some sheriffs chose not to enforce the law for publicity.
Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle said if the courts decided the law constitutional, he was required to uphold it.
“I would prefer that the courts decide that issue before we are confronted with an actual case,” Nagle said.
About 20 sheriffs have said they will not enforce the law, including those in Benton, Grant, Yakima and Spokane counties.
Bieber shuddered at their stance.
“I am sorely disappointed in some of my colleagues in law enforcement choosing to make blanket statements of non-enforcement and ignoring a legally enacted law because their opinion is that it is unconstitutional,” he said.
“I would have much greater respect for some of my colleagues had they come out and said they have concerns with I-1639 and will be using due care and discretion in any enforcement action that take in its regard, not wishing to violate individual rights.” he said.