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Washington voters approved a tough new gun law, but some county sheriffs won't enforce it

David Gutman, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

In November, Washington state voters passed new gun regulations with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

But it turns out that the voters might not have had the last word.

In at least 13 mostly rural counties across the state. county sheriffs have publicly pledged not to enforce the new law, known as Initiative 1639, citing their personal opposition to it.

"My job as a sheriff is to throw bad guys in jail, but it's also to protect the constitutional rights of citizens of our county," said Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer. "I follow the rule of law when I believe it's constitutional."

Sheriffs in Grays Harbor, Pacific, Mason, Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat, Grant, Benton, Franklin, Adams, Lincoln, Ferry and Stevens counties -- where majorities of voters opposed 1639 -- have all said they will not enforce the new law.

In King County, which has three times as many voters as those 13 counties combined, 76 percent supported the ballot measure and Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht co-wrote the argument in favor of it in the state voters' guide. Last week, she said the initiative "can be refined," but that it's up to the courts to determine its constitutionality.

 

"I took an oath to uphold the law," Johanknecht said in a prepared statement. "As law enforcement leaders, we defy that oath and betray the public trust if we pick and choose which laws we will uphold."

Songer and other sheriffs noted that officers use discretion all the time to determine which laws are enforcement priorities. Every time an officer sees a car driving over the speed limit he uses discretion in how to enforce the law. And several big cities in states where marijuana remains illegal have scaled back possession arrests, citing racial disparities in enforcement and a lack of resources.

Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington and a former federal prosecutor, said the gun law is different because the sheriffs are voicing their motivations so bluntly.

"What's atypical about this situation is they're not saying 'Hey, we have limited resources so we're going to figure out how to best use them,' " Fan said. "They're saying, 'We don't agree with the people and so even though we are the people's public servants we're not going to enforce that law.'"

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