SEATTLE — The state attorney general says sheriffs who refuse to enforce Washington’s stricter new gun laws could be held responsible if they don’t perform expanded background checks and someone who shouldn’t have a weapon buys one and uses it in a crime.
Bob Ferguson wrote an open letter to law enforcement Tuesday, saying he was confident the voter-approved law was constitutional, The Seattle Times reported. At least 13 sheriffs have said they won’t enforce Initiative 1639, which voters passed by a wide margin in November.
“This is not a situation where the federal government is trying to force the state to enforce federal laws,” Ferguson wrote. “If you personally disagree with Initiative 1639, seek to change it. Or file a lawsuit challenging it. But do not substitute your personal views over that of the people.”
The new law has already raised the minimum age to buy semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. Starting July 1, the law also requires expanded background checks for those rifles and can hold gun owners responsible if their weapon was stored carelessly and is used in a crime.
The National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation last November sued Ferguson and Washington state in federal court, arguing the law was unconstitutional.
That lawsuit was withdrawn Monday after Ferguson sought to have it dismissed on procedural grounds, but was simultaneously refiled. It now lists the Clark County sheriff, who has vowed to uphold the law, the Spokane police chief and the director of the state Department of Licensing as defendants.
Some sheriffs claim the law is unconstitutional but have been vague about which parts they won’t enforce.
The main responsibility for local law enforcement under the law is to run the expanded background checks, which require searching at least three state and federal databases and checking for outstanding warrants and pending criminal charges.
Law enforcement has done that check for years on anyone who tries to buy a handgun. Ferguson said he is most concerned about this aspect of the new law.
“These enhanced background checks keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals who lawfully cannot own firearms because of a mental illness or criminal record,” Ferguson wrote. “As far as I know, no Washington sheriff or police chief has refused to perform these enhanced background checks for handguns. Why refuse to perform them for semiautomatic assault rifles?”
It is unclear how many sheriffs and police chiefs who have vowed not to enforce the law planned to not conduct the background checks.
For instance, Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond called the law unconstitutional and said he wouldn’t enforce it. But he also said he supported the 10-day waiting period and the expanded background checks.
“Certainly we’re going to follow all of those type of things,” Raymond said.
Ferguson said those who do not could be held liable if a gun sale that would have been prevented by the new background checks goes through and then someone uses that gun in a crime.
“The taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law,” he wrote.