Kootenai County commissioners showed admirable respect for the rule of law Tuesday in tabling a proposal that would have directed Sheriff Ben Wolfinger to not enforce federal gun laws.
Told by Prosecutor Barry McHugh that any action they took would likely be nonbinding, commissioners Jai Nelson, Dan Green and Todd Tondee chose not to make an empty gesture that might have satisfied Second Amendment supporters but also confused the public regarding the legitimate exercise of authority.
The sheriff’s powers are independent of those of the commissioners. But a good sheriff knows his or her limits. Wolfinger clearly does.
His summary of a sheriff’s purview: “It’s not our job to pass the laws. It’s not our job to interpret the laws. It’s our job to enforce the laws.”
Too many sheriffs around the United States have forgotten that simple truth.
The New York Times reported this week that sheriffs from New York to Colorado are deciding on their own whether they will enforce federal laws regarding the registration of guns or, in the case of Colorado, state laws that, for example, limit the number of rounds a magazine can hold.
Legally, the sheriffs are probably free to determine what level of enforcement, if any, they dedicate to federal gun laws. McHugh notes a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said sheriffs cannot be compelled to enforce federal laws.
So the bold declarations of non-enforcement amount to little more than chest-thumping, except the thumpers confuse their prerogatives with a power to unilaterally decide which laws are constitutional and which are not.
But what, besides a badge, is the difference between a decision by a law enforcement agency to not enforce the law, and a decision by an individual to not obey the law?
Unfortunately, the Obama administration and its inattention to the letter of the law regarding immigration or marijuana use, for example, encourage a public perception that anything goes if it serves a purpose.
In Colorado, residents who oppose their Legislature’s gun control bill are going about the process of changing those laws the right way: They are recalling the politicians responsible for their enactment. Until then, sheriffs can legitimately determine how much effort they will put into gun law enforcement – with a lack of resources, all law enforcement sets priorities – but choosing to ignore the law based on a personal opinion on the constitutionality of any statute is irresponsible.
McHugh drew a clear line for the commissioners, and they chose not to cross it. Respect for law and order was preserved.
The Kootenai County Central Republican Committee, which concocted the proposed ordinance, should consider the commissioners’ action and McHugh’s brief good learning tools, as should all county residents.