Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"Rural" sheriffs are scofflaws on gun control legislation

That's the gist of this story by Erica Goode in yesterday's New York Times under the headline "Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Laws on Gun Control."  The dateline is Greeley, Colorado, population 95,357, and the county seat of metropolitan Weld County, population 263,691.  Never mind that Greeley is a city in a metropolitan county… early in the story, Goode evokes the connection between gun rights advocates and rurality, suggesting that this disobedience by public officials is a rural phenomenon (maybe she is thinking "frontier mentality" as "rural culture").
Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if Sheriff Cooke [of Weld County] and a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions.
Goode reports that 55 of Colorado's 62 elected sheriffs have signed onto a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's new statutes.  (And many of them no doubt are from nonmetropolitan counties). Some sheriffs explain that the laws are too vague, and others--even those who have not signed onto the lawsuit--say that enforcing them is "a very low priority."  Among the latter category is Sheriff Pete W. Palmer of Chaffee County, population 16,242, in central Colorado, who notes the "huge practical difficulties" in enforcing the laws, violations of which are misdemeanors.  Palmer states:
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.
Regarding the law suit, a federal district judge has ruled that the sheriffs can sue as individuals, but that they have no standing in their official capacity.  The judge also ruled that one part of the law regarding magazines was not unconstitutionally vague.

As for the sheriffs' decision to buck the laws, Goode quotes Lance Clem, spokesperson for the Colorado Dept. of Public Safety:
We’re not in the position of telling sheriffs and chiefs what to do or not to do.  We have people calling us all the time, thinking they’ve got an issue with their sheriff, and we tell them we don’t have the authority to intervene.
Goode continues, with a more opaque reference to rurality--"heartland": 
The resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high.
She goes on to details similar issues in Florida, New York, and California. For example, Goode reports that a delegation of California sheriffs met with Governor Jerry Brown this fall to try to influence his action on new gun control laws passed by the California legislature.  Goode quotes Jon E. Lopey, the sheriff of Siskiyou County, who was among those meeting with Brown:  
Our way of life means nothing to these politicians, and our interests are not being promoted in the legislative halls of Sacramento or Washington, D.C.
Goode paraphrased Lopey's other comments, including that "residents of his rural region near the Oregon border are equally frustrated by regulations imposed by the federal Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency."  Brown did veto a law that would have banned semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines.  Another California law, one banning lead ammunition for hunting, he signed into law.

Note that Weld County, Colorado and Siskiyou County, California, are two places where secession activism has recently garnered national attention.  Read more here and here.  Weld County residents voted against secession on the November ballot, though six other counties favored secession.  

P.S.  This was one of the five most emailed stories on nytimes.com for the week ending Dec. 18, 2013.  

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