Attorney General Ferguson warns sheriffs opposing I-1639

By Madeline Coats
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is warning the more than half the state’s county law enforcement officials who say they refuse to fully enforce Initiative 1639 gun control measures voters approved in November.
Police chiefs and sheriffs will be held liable if they refuse to perform background checks required by I-1639, Ferguson said Tuesday in an open letter to the law enforcement officers who oppose the measure.
As of Tuesday, 32 sheriffs and multiple police chiefs have said they will not enforce the measure that raises the age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21, redefines the firearm as an "assault rifle," makes owners criminally liable if their gun is used in an incident, amid other new regulations.
“I will defend Initiative 1639 against any challenge,” Ferguson wrote. “My office defeated the legal challenge to the previous gun safety initiative passed by the people, and I am confident we will defeat any constitutional challenge to Initiative 1639 as well.
The measure is facing a constitutional challenge in U.S. District Court in a filing entered by the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation.
“Local law enforcement are entitled to their opinions about the constitutionality of any law, but those personal views do not absolve us of our duty to enforce Washington laws and protect the public,” Ferguson said.
The Washington State Sheriffs Association issued a statement on its website last week regarding public opposition of I-1639. It expressed concerns about rights protected by the Second Amendment. Law enforcement officials in at least 22 of Washington’s 39 counties have said they will not actively enforce the measure.
“The initiative placed greater restrictions on law-abiding citizens while creating unreasonable expectations regarding how such restrictions would be enforced,” the statement said.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich believes Initiative 1639 is unconstitutional at the state and federal level.
“As sheriff there is nothing, at this time, for me to enforce as it pertains to 1639,” Knezovich said. “As it is now, 1639 is not constitutional, is being challenged in court and there is nothing for me to enforce.”
I-1639 was intended to increase public safety by reducing gun violence and accidents. The law also creates an enhanced background check system, requires individuals to complete a firearm safety training course and requires firearms dealers to sell trigger locks and gun safes, while preventing them from selling semi-automatic rifles to out-of-state residents.
The provision with the most pushback relates to standards of gun storage. Under the measure, a person who leaves a firearm in a place where another person could potentially gain access to the weapon would be guilty of felony community endangerment.  
According to the initiative, shootings involving semi-automatic rifles have resulted in hundreds of injuries and lives lost. Such incidents can have lasting psychological impacts on survivors and their communities, the text of I-1639 said. These weapons have been used in the country’s deadliest mass shootings.
One week after the general election, the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation filed a joint lawsuit against Washington state and Attorney General Ferguson. The two organizations claim that initiative violates the U.S. and Washington state constitutions.
“You can own a house or car before 21, but you can’t own a firearm to protect your house or car,” said Lars Dalseide of the National Rifle Association.
The law denies protection for adults between the ages of 18 and 21, he said.
According to the office of the Secretary of State, I-1639 was adopted as state law by nearly 60 percent of the people.
“No action by a city council or county commission can change this state law or the responsibilities and duties that the law vests in Washington’s law enforcement agencies,” Ferguson said in his letter.
The Alliance for Gun Responsibility supports the provision, said communications manager Kristen Ellingboe. She believes the law is the most comprehensive gun violence measure in the nation.
The alliance’s focus has been on trying to correct "misunderstandings" that have sparked opposition. While Ellingboe said there has been an overwhelming amount of support in the initiative west of the Cascades, she is disappointed to see sheriffs and law enforcement officials oppose the law.
“We are counting on the fact that when the time really comes, the sheriffs will follow the law,” she said. “If they continue to stand in opposition, I would expect that they are opening themselves up to legal vulnerabilities.”
Only one sheriff east of the Cascades, Walla Walla County Sheriff Mark Crider, has said he will enforce the law.
Crider said he will enforce the measure even though voters in his own county overwhelmingly rejected it.
I-1639 was soundly rejected in 18 of the 20 counties that make up Eastern Washington, but it passed on the strength of voter support in Puget Sound metropolitan area.