EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 22, 2013

Column: Law enforcement officials must enforce laws

Dan K. Thomasson
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Since when do county sheriffs get to decide which state laws they will enforce? Furthermore, when did they become the arbiters of what is or isn’t constitutional?

Ask the citizens of Colorado (I used to be one) who are now confronted by rebellious elected “law” officers who say they aren’t going to enforce a package of new gun controls that makes their state one of the saner and possibly safer venues in the nation. They consider the new statutes vague and a violation of the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. In fact, all but seven of the state’s 62 sheriffs signed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the new statues.

The last time anyone looked, these law enforcement paragons -- whose main duties include serving subpoenas, warrants and running the jails where inmates are housed because, among other things, they used a firearm in the commission of a crime -- had no say about the constitutionality of a law. That responsibility in every place I know of in this land belongs to the courts.

So who’s in charge in Colorado? Apparently it’s not the legislature or the governor or the judiciary; it’s the county Mounties. If they are allowed to get away with this, these badge-wearing, gun-toting successors to the Earps and the Hickoks, like their predecessors, are pretty much a law unto themselves. By the way, Wyatt Earp and Bill Hickok took it on themselves to ban the carrying and brandishing of firearms in certain areas of their jurisdictions despite the Second Amendment.

Few states have more reason than Colorado to try to keep guns out of the hands of crazies and to ban the use of such things as 30-bullet magazines. The state has been the site of two of the highest profile massacres in the history of such tragedies: the mass slaying first at Columbine High School and then the more recent fusillade of death and destruction launched in an Aurora theater filled with Batman fans.

When the Newtown, Conn., slaying of 20 youngsters and six adults occurred last year, Colorado lawmakers decided something had to be done. After all, Congress couldn’t even pass a law to expand background checks that 90 percent of Americans supported. Just the other day an incident in Arapahoe High School in Colorado fell just short of another major tragedy.

A large number of Congressmen decided stopping criminals and nutcases from getting guns they might use on innocent children or patrons of malls and crowded theaters was not enough reason to disturb the flow of support from the gun lobby, namely the National Rifle Association. Their NRA rating might drop.

The package adopted after a tough campaign produced a backlash among those who still believe the West is wild. Two key players in the successful effort to do something about this were recalled by voters. The message: How dare they cast a vote aimed at preventing these atrocities? There are bigger, more important questions here such as the ability to draw first if the need is perceived, as fostered in self-defense laws in some states like Florida.

While the Supreme Court supported an individual’s right to own a gun, overturning two centuries of judicial thought that the Second Amendment was steeped in the need to form militias in what was still pretty much a wilderness, the court did not prohibit the adoption of local and state laws that control the trafficking of firearms. So the fight shifted largely to the state legislatures.

Colorado isn’t the only site of rural resistance by sheriffs. Groups of these elected law enforcement operatives are making noises along the same lines in a number of other locations. No offense meant, but those who hold these jobs aren’t generally heavyweight sleuths. A whole lot of them are just politicians untrained in the craft. They make their money off of fees and how they run the jails, including feeding the prisoners, and the result often has been corruption and abuse.

One sheriff in Weld County, Colo., was portrayed in the national press recently as holding up two identical large-capacity magazines. He said one was bought before the law went into effect and the other after. How could he or anyone tell the difference? Make the owner show a receipt, buster. When in doubt, check it out.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.