Like some of their peers across the state, incumbent Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson and sheriff-elect Brad Thurman are worried that Initiative 1639 will place a big workload on law enforcement agencies, and they hope that at least some changes to the law can be made.
“There are pieces of this legislation that will put a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on law enforcement,” Nelson said last week, describing the initiative as “another one of those grand, unfunded mandates.”
Thurman said the initiative carries some “troubling parts ... (and) some corrections can be made to make it less onerous on law-abiding citizens.”
Thurman declined to be specific about how he might approach the state’s latest gun-control initiative when he takes office next month, but he said enforcing it won’t be a high priority.
“I don’t think we’re going to make (it) a high priority in the grand scheme of things,” Thurman said Tuesday about I-1639. “There’s other laws in place to deal with those who shouldn’t have guns in the first place.”
About 61 percent of Cowlitz County voters opposed the initiative on the November ballot, but the measure passed with 59 percent of the statewide vote. Among its provisions, I-1639 mandates background checks for what it calls “semi-automatic assault rifles” and raises the minimum age for purchase and possession of such weapons from 18 to 21.
It also requires criminal and mental health background checks with both federal and state agencies.
Supporters of the initiative ‘Yes on I-1639’ argued that 18 to 21-year-olds have less developed capacities for decision-making and impulse control and commit a disproportionate number of firearm homicides in the United States. They also argued that semi-automatic rifles lead to far more deaths in mass shootings and ought to require a higher degree of training and background checks. Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson called the lack of legislative action on gun reform in Washington “deeply disappointing” in supporting the initiative.
But the National Rifle Association and the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation sued the State of Washington on Nov. 15 over the constitutionality of I-1639. They say the measure violates the Second Amendment rights of young people and interferes with interstate commerce.
Gun control legislation tends to drive gun sales higher, Nelson said, which could also spell more work for the Sheriff’s Office as it processes concealed pistol licenses.
“It happens every time there’s a change in the gun laws,” he said. “It increases sales. ... (and) all of these things will come (back) to local law enforcement.”
Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza is no fan of the initiative. He’s not joining any legal action to combat it, but he’s not going to seek out violators.
“Now, I will uphold the law,” Sheriff Rob Snaza told The Centralia Daily Chronicle. “That is my job. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
In Wahkiakum County, County Commissioner Dan Cothren recently proposed creating a county ordinance to oppose the initiative, according to the Wahkiakum County Eagle. (Such a move likely would be invalidated itself, because local laws can’t nullify state laws.) Undersheriff Gary Howell agrees that the initiative is unconstitutional, the Eagle reported.
Sheriff Nelson also questions the measure’s constitutionality. He, Thurman and Snaza point out that teens can join the military and be armed with semi-automatic guns but be unable to purchase those guns on their own until they turn 21.
“I wrestle with the fact that we can hand a 17- or 18-year-old a weapon and send them to war, but we will not allow them to purchase one as a civilian,” Nelson said. “I think that’s wrong. We call them legal adults at 18. They’re either responsible enough or they’re not. ... Raising the age to 21 to buy any kind of firearm, I think it’s hypocritical, quite honestly.”
Nelson said the initiative puts the law in a pinch: By enforcing the measure, they would in his opinion be in conflict with the state and federal constitution.
“I almost look at it as a violation of a person’s oath of office. Which do you support and follow? Because they contradict one another, in my opinion. It puts law enforcement in general in a very, very difficult place. Quite honestly, I hope the courts look at it and go, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t do that.’ “