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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington attorney general calls out sheriffs who say they won’t enforce new gun law

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle in 2017. On Tuesday, he called out Washington sheriffs and police chiefs who have said they will not enforce Initiative 1639, which brings sweeping new changes to the state gun laws. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Tuesday called out sheriffs and police chiefs who have publicly said they won’t enforce Initiative 1639, saying they should follow the new gun law because it is the “will of the people” and because their inaction could cost taxpayers.

Several sheriffs across Washington, including those in Lincoln, Grant, Okanogan and Stevens counties, have said they don’t intend to follow Initiative 1639, which was passed by about 60 percent of state voters in November and adds requirements on gun storage and background checks and raises the age limit to purchase semi-automatic “assault” rifles.

In his letter posted Tuesday, Ferguson said he doesn’t agree with nearly all of those sheriffs, including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who believe the law is unconstitutional as written.

“If you personally disagree with Initiative 1639, seek to change it. But do not substitute your personal views over that of the people,” Ferguson wrote. “As public officers, our duty is to abide by the will of the people we serve, and implement and enforce the laws they adopt. I encourage you to do so.”

Knezovich, who called out his fellow sheriffs for grandstanding, said the same thing Tuesday about Ferguson.

“Our attorney general is playing gun politics rather than protecting citizens’ rights,” Knezovich said. “It’s just another example of grandstanding from this attorney general’s office.”

The new law, approved by 51 percent of voters in Spokane County, includes sweeping changes for how Washington residents and dealers buy, sell and store firearms.

The new law on Jan. 1 raised the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21. A series of changes are scheduled to take effect July 1, including a new 10-day waiting period on those same purchases.

The law also will require gun buyers to show they have completed a safety course prior to the purchase of a semi-automatic assault rifle. Gun owners also will face a Class C felony if they leave firearms in a place where a “prohibited person could potentially gain access to the firearm.”

The law was quickly challenged in November in federal court by the National Rifle Association. Ferguson challenged that lawsuit on procedural grounds and it was voluntarily dismissed Monday, according to court records.

But on Friday, a new lawsuit challenging I-1639 was filed in federal court in Tacoma. This time, the listed defendants are Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, Clark County Sheriff Charles Atkins and Teresa Berntsen, the director of the state Department of Licensing.

Knezovich said Ferguson was correct when he wrote that local law enforcement for years has performed the enhanced background checks on all handgun purchases. He doesn’t expect that to change for the purchases of semi-automatic rifles under I-1639. But it’s not his office that performs those background checks.

“Craig Meidl will be doing that. Police Records does the background checks,” he said.

Lincoln County Sheriff Wade Magers previously said he would not follow I-1639. But he said Tuesday that his office would perform the new background checks called for as part of the new law.

“In short, my office has and will continue to do the required background checks,” Magers wrote. “I have never nor has any other Sheriff stated we would not continue to do the required background checks. I have and will continue to have my office perform the background checks as always.”

In his letter, Ferguson said any sheriffs who refuse to do the checks could put their constituents at financial risk or worse.

“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,” Ferguson wrote. “In short, the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law.”

Knezovich also called Ferguson to task for that statement, saying the attorney general should be blamed for allowing a three-year backlog for mental health checks for persons seeking to purchase guns.

“I think our state attorney general should be held liable if someone with a mental health issue kills someone with a gun and that background check hasn’t been done,” Knezovich said. “Maybe he needs to look in the mirror.”

Ferguson also wrote that the sheriffs should not discount I-1639 because they do not believe it’s constitutional.

“Like all laws passed by the people of Washington and their representatives, Initiative 1639 is presumed constitutional,” Ferguson wrote in part. “And, I am confident we will defeat any constitutional challenge to Initiative 1639 as well.”

But Knezovich doesn’t agree, particularly on the portion of the law that requires gun owners to keep guns in a “secure” storage. The law doesn’t define what that is, which would leave prosecutors open to interpret its meaning.

That could result in gun owners being prosecuted in Seattle while others in Spokane face no penalty for the same conduct, Knezovich said.

“So you have another prong to attack it because it violates the Equal Protection Clause,” Knezovich said. “How do you defend a law that hasn’t been defined? It sounds like a grandstanding attorney general at this point.”