State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has warned sheriffs and other law enforcement officials they could be held liable if they refuse to perform background checks on the purchase of semiautomatic rifles — a requirement of Initiative 1639 — and those weapons are subsequently used to harm others.
A large number of county sheriffs around the state, including Rick Scott in Grays Harbor County and Robin Souvenir in Pacific County, have recently said they would not actively enforce the initiative based on what they see as a conflict with the right to bear arms in the U.S. and State Constitutions.
“… In the event a police chief or sheriff refuses to perform the background check required by Initiative 1639, they could be held liable if there is a sale or transfer of a firearm to a dangerous individual prohibited from possessing a firearm and that individual uses that firearm to do harm,” said Ferguson in a letter dated Feb. 12. “In short, the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law.”
Ferguson’s letter singles out the background check portion of the initiative. The statements issued by Scott and other sheriffs did not address specific parts of the initiative, but rather its impact on a consitutional right to keep and bear arms.
“There isn’t a sheriff in the state that I am aware of that has said they’re not going to do the background checks,” said Scott. “We’re all going to do that.”
The initiative, passed last November with 60 percent of the statewide vote, raises the legal age for purchase of semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21, requires anyone purchasing such a firearm to take a firearms safety course and undergo a background check and requires guns to be secured and subjects gun owners to criminal charges if their firearms are used in crimes by someone else.
The law goes into effect July 1. In his letter, Ferguson said, “Just like handgun purchases, local law enforcement officials are required to perform these background checks. 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?”
“That is part of the problem with the way (the initiative) was written,” said Scott. “There are portions of it where everyone with common sense is going to agree it’s a good thing to do. We intended to do that (the background checks) from the get-go.”
Scott clarified the steps he, Pacific County Sheriff Robin Souvenir and other sheriffs across the state will take in regards to the enforcement of the gun control measure.
“My deputies are going to document any complaint brought forward, like any other reported violation of law,” said Scott. “What I don’t want them doing is making a probable cause determination in the field and take enforcement action based upon their own interpretation of the law. They will write it up and send it to (county prosecutor) Katie (Svoboda) if it warrants review. Our concern is the ambiguity of the law.”
Scott said the impression that deputies are refusing to enforce a law is unfounded.
“Enforcement actions will be determined after the investigation is complete and reviewed,” said Scott. “I haven’t talked to a single sheriff that said they weren’t going to do the background checks.”
Ferguson said he is confident the initiative will stand up to any and all legal challenges, which are ongoing.
“I will defend Initiative 1639 against any legal challenge,” he 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.”
Ferguson concluded, “As public officers, our duty is to abide by the will of the people we serve, and implement and enforce the laws they adopt. I encourage you to do so.”