Wahkiakum County Sheriff Mark Howie has joined other sheriffs in condemning Initiative 1639 and said Wednesday he will not actively enforce the law, which in part requires gun owners to store firearms in a place where a “prohibited person” could not gain access to them.
The initiative violates his oath of office and the state and federal constitutions, Howie said.
“I am not going to violate my oath I have taken to uphold the constitution and go and check people’s houses on a yearly basis to make sure they’re complying with this initiative as it’s written.”
The sheriff’s office will take enforcement case by case, Howie said: A 70-year-old man living alone with an unsecured gun on his nightstand, for example, would be treated differently than a house with guns “lying all over the place” and children running around.
But he wants more clarity in the law and said he’s awaiting the results of a state Supreme Court challenge that gun rights groups have filed against the initiative. Howie said it was “(at) least negligent” for lawmakers to write the initiative without collaborating more with the sheriffs, who will be tasked with performing criminal and mental health background checks the measure requires.
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.
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Asked what he would do if his officers encounter a 20-year-old in possession of a semi-automatic rifle, Howie said, “I’d have (deputies) draw a case number on it, document it, and send it my way. I would not have them arrest them.”
Wahkiakum County voted 65 to 35 percent against the initiative in the November general election, but it passed statewide with 59 percent of the vote.
Supporters of the initiative argue that 18- to 21-year-olds have less-developed capacities for decision-making and impulse control. They also argue that semi-automatic rifles lead to far more deaths in mass shootings and ought to require a higher degree of training and background checks.
But sheriffs and lawmen around the state are objecting to the new law, including the sheriffs of Lewis and Cowlitz counties. One of the most outspoken critics is Loren Culp, police chief of the town of Republic in Northeast Washington. He drew national attention in November when he announced he would not enforce the law and called for an ordinance to “prevent federal and state infringement on the right to keep and bear arms.”
Howie says the initiative is just not fair.
“It puts a burden on law abiding citizens and law enforcement while creating no accountability for criminals that violate any firearms law,” he said.