Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has a message to those who want him to publicly refuse to enforce Washington’s new restrictive gun law: Don’t tread on me.
Knezovich said he believes voter-approved Initiative 1639 is unconstitutional. But he’s refusing to join other “grandstanding” sheriffs who have already publicly denounced the law, which adds requirements on gun storage, background checks and raises the age limit to purchase semi-automatic “assault” rifles.
“There is a group running out there putting pressure on sheriffs to write letters, and they are caving,” Knezovich said. “I refuse to do it. I will uphold my oath to this office.”
On Wednesday, Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell joined several other law enforcement officers who say they will not enforce Initiative 1639 for a variety of reasons but mostly because they don’t believe the law is allowed under state or federal constitutions.
“I don’t like it,” Udell told the Yakima Herald-Republic on Wednesday. “It’s not aimed at who’s committing crimes.”
Since voters approved I-1639, the police chief in Republic and sheriffs in Thurston, Wahkiakum, Klickitat and now Yakima counties have said they will not enforce the law. But Knezovich said their proclamations are misplaced.
“This is too important of an issue to do that garbage,” Knezovich said. “If these sheriffs really want to have an impact, get a hold of an attorney and file a lawsuit to stop this unconstitutional law.”
The new law, approved by 59 percent of state voters and 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 now face a Class C felony if they leave firearms in a place where a “prohibited person could potentially gain access to the firearm.”
While the law was supported by Ami Strahan, the mother of Freeman High School shooting victim Sam Strahan, Knezovich was an early opponent to the measure, which he calls unenforceable.
“An 18-year-old is able to possess an AR-15, they just can’t buy it,” he said. “An 18- to 20-year-old cannot purchase a handgun. But they can own one and possess it and carry it back and forth to shooting events. Where do I have jurisdiction? The bottom line is 1639 includes nothing for a sheriff to enforce.”
Knezovich said he is at a loss to figure out how to uphold the new law’s requirement that gun owners safely store their guns.
“They haven’t even defined what safe storage is. So good luck enforcing that one,” he said. “You’ve got to go into that house to make sure someone is storing their guns safely. No, I won’t. The Fourth Amendment says I won’t. There is nothing in that dang law that has me doing anything.”
The law is already subject to a legal challenge mounted in November by the National Rifle Association. Knezovich said he would gladly join that legal fight if attorneys could show how he has a stake in it.
Steven Strachan, a former King County sheriff and current executive director of the Washington State Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization is not advocating for its members to take a public stand.
However, he said it’s common for sheriffs to have conversations about their enforcement priorities. He cited varying degrees of marijuana enforcement prior to possession becoming legal and immigration policies as examples.
“It’s a subject that lot of people feel very strongly about, so it gets a lot of attention,” Strachan said of I-1639. “But sheriffs … are the chief law enforcement officers of their counties and they can communicate their law enforcement priorities as they see fit.”
Knezovich said he doesn’t agree with that analogy, especially when it comes to immigration enforcement.
“It’s a slippery slope when we decide what laws we are or aren’t going to enforce,” he said. “All this does is make us look like Congress. The progressives in Congress refuse to enforce their own immigration laws. They should be held in contempt of Congress and arrested for obstruction of justice.
“We already have cities and counties saying they are going to become sanctuary cities and not enforce immigration laws,” he continued. “You cannot pick and choose what laws to enforce.”
He also criticized those who are now seeking to have sheriffs publicly denounce the law, saying law detractors “should have been more active during the election.”
Otherwise, any calls to have elected sheriffs raise objections after the vote didn’t go their way “are empty words.”
“Our system is based on law. If there is a bad law, you challenge it,” Knezovich said. “I will not put out a letter that contains empty words. If you are looking for a letter from me, you’ve got a long wait.”