One of the leading talking points for those advocating more gun laws has been the support many such measures have gotten from law enforcement personnel. As a rule, police officers generally prefer working in environments where the populace is unarmed. That’s understandable since, at least in theory, fewer guns ought to make it safer for cops to do their jobs. But just as the consensus about the need for more gun control in urban sectors breaks down once you leave the suburbs and head into the exurbs and rural areas, the same might be said about peacekeepers. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, a growing number of county sheriffs are not only saying they think the latest wave of state laws passed in the wake of last year’s Newtown massacre are wrongheaded or unnecessary. They’re also saying they won’t enforce them because they are unconstitutional or a waste of time.
This is happening not only in rural Colorado, which has become the cutting edge of the gun debate, but also in upstate New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo made new laws restricting firearms and ammunition magazines a priority in 2013 as well as in Florida and California. The trend stems in part from pro-gun sentiment. But just as important to the discussion is the notion that outside of cities, laws whose sole aim is to make it harder to legally possess weapons are seen as vague, unenforceable, and burden already overworked law enforcement officials with busywork. Many sheriffs simply say they’ve had enough and even if their attempts to nullify legislation on constitutional grounds are unlikely to succeed, their protests illustrate the growing discontent about legislation that is out of touch with the culture of rural America.
It should first be admitted that lawsuits filed by sheriffs challenging new gun laws on constitutional grounds are stunts, rather than a serious legal argument. County sheriffs have no more right to refuse to enforce gun laws passed by their states because they say they violate the Second Amendment than the mayors and city councils of those municipalities that have publicly stated they won’t enforce immigration laws have to act in that manner. Being a sheriff or a mayor doesn’t give you the right to assume the role of the Supreme Court when it comes to determining the constitutionality of legislation, whether it is passed by a state or the federal government. Selective enforcement of the law is itself a violation of due process and those law enforcement officials that play this game are undermining their own credibility. They may not like gun laws any more than liberal legislators in the People’s Republic of Berkley, California like immigration regulations, or the administration when it comes to immigration or parts of their own ObamaCare law they find inconvenient, but they are just as obligated to see to it that the law isn’t mocked.
But the sheriffs are on much firmer ground when they note that much of the new gun legislation–and especially those measures that were rushed through some legislatures after Newtown as liberals sought to capitalize on public outrage over that atrocity–were more of a nuisance than a deterrent to gun crimes. Background checks for individuals selling their guns and high-capacity magazines makes sense to city dwellers who may not even know anyone who owns a gun for hunting or target shooting. But they are seen as irrelevant to the real problems of much of the country. As the Times points out:
Even Sheriff W. Pete Palmer of Chaffee County, one of the seven sheriffs who declined to join the federal lawsuit because he felt duty-bound to carry out the laws, said he was unlikely to aggressively enforce them. He said enforcement poses “huge practical difficulties,” and besides, he has neither the resources nor the pressure from his constituents to make active enforcement a high priority. Violations of the laws are misdemeanors.
“All law enforcement agencies consider the community standards — what is it that our community wishes us to focus on — and I can tell you our community is not worried one whit about background checks or high-capacity magazines,” he said.
The fact that such laws wouldn’t have prevented Newtown or most other high-profile acts of gun violence further undermines support for them among non-city dwellers. Thus, while sheriffs who have joined lawsuits against these laws have no right to say they will try to unilaterally nullify legislation on the basis of their own sketchy legal expertise, it may very well fall within their competence to declare such gun laws to be the moral equivalent of obsolete statutes criminalizing spitting on the sidewalk that are routinely ignored by city cops.
The problem here isn’t a gun lobby like the National Rifle Association that liberals like to demonize or out-of-control local officials as it is laws that are simply out of touch with the needs of much of the country. This goes to the heart of the debate about guns. Were liberals able to prove that burdening legal gun owners would substantially decrease gun violence they might have a leg to stand on in states like Colorado or upstate New York when it came to enforcing new pieces of legislation. But since they can’t, gun owners and sheriffs who sympathize with them consider the point of the exercise to take away their constitutional rights rather than a reasonable effort aimed at making for a safer society. That is why a year after Newtown support for more gun laws is no greater today than it was before that incident.