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Shawn Vestal: Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger gets it right on role of law enforcement

In less remarkable times, it might be less remarkable to hear a sheriff – a GOP sheriff in an ultra-red county, no less – remark that his job is enforcing laws.

Not writing laws. Not ignoring laws. Not independently deciding the constitutionality of laws. And not turning over allegiance from the country and the county they serve to the wishes of political parties and their central committees.

No, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger had it exactly right when he told the Kootenai County Commission earlier this week: “It’s not our job to pass the laws, it’s not our job to interpret the laws. It’s just our job to enforce the laws.”

Now maybe Wolfinger could go on a speaking tour of the country’s other red-state sheriffs, many of whom have gotten the idea that they are more than simply law-enforcement officers. They are kings. They are lords of fiefdoms. They are self-appointed defenders against an enemy that otherwise goes by the name of the constitutionally elected executive and legislative branches of the government.

The dream of government resistance is closely tied to the dream of government overthrow, and it runs deep in the far-right West. All of us who grew up here have encountered it, the spectrum of anti-government thought that runs from the moderate to the dangerously extreme. We’ve seen its ugliest expressions right here in Spokane and North Idaho, but its seedlings are present in more mainstream political expressions that attempt to delegitimize legitimate government. You hear it in the continued insistence from some that Obamacare, whatever its manifest flaws, is unconstitutional. You hear it when some gun owners express their conviction that they – merely by virtue of their gun ownership and their truculence – are a bulwark against government oppression.

This line of thought pretends to idealize a passionate love of the Constitution, but it is a deeply qualified love: It means only what you want it to mean, and if the constitutional process produces a result that you don’t like, you don’t have to accept it. You are the arbiter of constitutionality, in this vein of thinking, and anything that is contrary to your opinions must be unconstitutional.

It should go without saying that this is dangerous thinking in a diverse democratic society because there will always be times when the constitutional process produces results you don’t like.

But how dangerous is it when these notions thrive in the offices of county sheriffs around the country? Some of the worst thinking in Western extremism has taken up the notion of the sheriff as the only legitimate authority.

In Colorado, many sheriffs are refusing to enforce new laws passed by the state Legislature regulating the size of assault-rifle magazines. That’s right: County sheriffs are taking it upon themselves to announce, publicly and proudly, that they will not enforce legally passed laws. They are doing so to great acclaim among those who are, ironically, self-declared constitutional purists.

One sheriff stood before news cameras holding two magazine clips – one that violates Colorado’s new law and one that doesn’t – and noting that they were virtually impossible to distinguish. Therefore, he won’t even try. A strange spectacle indeed – can you recall the last time a cop stood up with, say, a baggie of cocaine and a baggie of baking powder and said it was just too dang hard to figure out the difference?

This week, the Kootenai County Republican Party’s central committee asked the county commission to pass a law declaring federal gun laws invalid and directing the sheriff not to enforce them. It is hard to imagine serious people taking this seriously, let alone serious people who claim to seriously love the Constitution.

As for the specter of gun control: People who pay attention may recall that the last attempt to pass even wildly popular gun control legislation, closing the gun-show loophole, couldn’t overcome the loyalty to the National Rifle Association among Congress-lackeys.

Still, these are itchy times for the paranoid. They are fairly sure that they should not simply accept the victory they secured through the constitutional process, but should fortify the ramparts for revolution. Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh pointed out the flaws in this thinking. But it was Wolfinger’s refusal to go along that meant the most, in symbolic if not legal terms.

It isn’t the first time he has gotten it right, when it comes to the way we determine constitutionality in this country. A year or so ago, when the doomed gun-control proposals were being crafted, a Second Amendment rally was held in Coeur d’Alene. Wolfinger did not attend, and drew flak for it.

His response was heartening, if you prefer the real Constitution to the unconstitutional one: “Personally, I oppose many of (the proposals) and will watch and see if the courts rule on the constitutionality of them.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.