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AG Ferguson addresses sheriffs refusing to enforce I-1639

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an open letter Tuesday to law enforcement regarding I-1639, the comprehensive gun safety initiative that voters approved in 2018.

The initiative raised the age for buying a semi-automatic weapon to 21 on January 1 of this year. Starting July 1, it will increase requirements for secure gun storage and apply the same background check requirements for purchasing handguns to semi-automatic weapons. It faced legal challenges on its way to the ballot, and backlash to the initiative’s passing came fast and from multiple angles.

While almost 60 percent of voters approved the initiative in the general election, 25 of Washington’s 39 counties did not.

Image: Washington Secretary of State

In November, the police chief in Republic, Washington, told iFiber One that he won’t enforce I-1639 and proposed turning Republic into a “Second Amendment Sanctuary City.” Since then, sheriffs and police chiefs in several other Washington counties — The Seattle Times reports “at least 13” total — have refused to enforce the law, a development that’s made national headlines.

In Tuesday’s open letter, Ferguson reinforced the importance of enforcing the new law and vowed to defend it against legal challenges.

“Local law enforcement officials are entitled to their opinions about the constitutionality of any law, but those personal views do not absolve us of our duty to enforce Washington laws and protect the public,” Ferguson wrote.

The letter focuses particularly on one aspect of the law: that starting on July 1, enhanced background checks — the same as are currently in-practice for purchasing handguns — are required for purchasing semi-automatic weapons.

Ferguson wrote that law enforcement officers who don’t perform the background checks could be held liable in the event someone uses the firearm “to do harm.”

“State law provides immunity to local law enforcement officers who run these checks ‘in good faith.’ However, 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. 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 wrote. (Formatting emphasis theirs.)

He ultimately advises sheriffs and police chiefs to go about opposing the law a different way.

“If you personally disagree with Initiative 1639, seek to change it,” Ferguson wrote. “Or file a lawsuit challenging it. But do not substitute your personal views over that of the people.”

The National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation filed a lawsuit against the State of Washington and Ferguson in November, challenging the initiative’s constitutionality. Recently, they amended their challenge and dropped Ferguson from the suit.

In a press release, Second Amendment Foundation founder Alan Gottlieb explained the recent change.

“Attorney General Ferguson told the court that he shouldn’t be a defendant in the case and defend the law at the same time,” Gottlieb said. “That may seem a bit contradictory, especially for a man who endorsed I-1639 and has vowed to defend it against any legal challenge, but he wanted out so we let him out. It allows him to be in his favorite spot, in front of a microphone.”