DENVER — Days after Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Colorado’s toughest gun control laws in more than a decade, some sheriffs are denouncing them as unenforceable, even in a state that has seen two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
The county-level officers say measures limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and requiring background checks for firearm purchases are impossible to carry out because they’re poorly written and don’t clearly define the elements of a crime.
“I’ve taken a stance that I will refuse to enforce any law that violates people’s constitutional rights,” said Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger, based in Divide, about 26 miles west of Colorado Springs.
“We can’t figure out how these laws would be enforced at this point in time without violating someone’s constitutional rights,” Ensminger said in a telephone interview. “If the elements of the crime are confusing and don’t make sense, it’s going to be difficult to enforce those laws for fear the defendant would turn around and bring a lawsuit against the county.”
The stance reflects the view of hundreds of rural law enforcement officials in states from California to Maryland who publicly proclaimed in the weeks after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that they would defy new gun laws in the name of protecting their constituents’ right to bear arms. That divide persists throughout the United States as the debate over tightened gun restrictions plays out in Congress and statehouses.
“The scale of what we’re seeing now is unprecedented,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. “We have hundreds and hundreds of sheriffs around the country saying they will not enforce any gun control. We have 20 states considering laws that would nullify any gun legislation. That is unconstitutional.”
The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police took a different tack, endorsing the new firearms laws, which were introduced on Feb. 5 and approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature six weeks later over protests from Republicans that they criminalized law-abiding citizens and did nothing to improve safety.
At a news briefing after a private bill-signing ceremony March 20, Hickenlooper called on county sheriffs to carry out the new measures.
“I fully expect all of our sheriffs and chiefs of police to enforce the law to the best of their ability,” said the governor, 61, a first-term Democrat.
The laws were passed eight months after James Holmes was arrested in the deaths of 12 people and the wounding of 58 during a shooting rampage at an Aurora movie theater, and almost 14 years after two students killed 13 people and themselves at Columbine High School in a Denver suburb.
The debate over tightened gun laws will continue in Colorado this week when a House of Representatives committee holds hearings on a bill that would require in-person training for concealed carry permit applicants and a measure that would require domestic violence offenders to surrender firearms.
As the debate over gun control goes on, sheriffs nationwide vowed disobedience should new gun measures be applied in their areas.
About 380 sheriffs declared they would uphold the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms in the weeks after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults died, according to statements compiled by the Pima, Ariz.-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
The group’s beliefs represent a rerun of the politics that historically accompanied efforts to strengthen firearms laws, gun control advocates say.
“Sheriffs and radical politics are nothing new on the gun issue,” said Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “These are elected officials and if you get someone from a right-wing county. you’re going to have this.”
The majority of the nation’s 3,080 sheriffs don’t hold such views, Everitt said. He pointed to a Feb. 1 resolution by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Sheriffs Association, saying the group “supports the rights conferred by the 2nd Amendment and further recognizes the ultimate authority of the courts in interpreting the scope of those constitutional rights.”
Some sheriffs in states such as Colorado, where efforts are under way to tighten gun laws, are passionate in their promises to defy them.
“I would never enforce such legislation in my county and put my deputies in harm’s way,” said Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association. “I cannot imagine sending them to homes of law-abiding citizens to remove their weapons.”
Legislation that would enable some of the nation’s strictest laws, including a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and imposing new licensing rules for handguns, including training and fingerprinting requirements for permit applicants, is pending in Maryland’s House of Delegates.
In most cases, sheriffs won’t be called upon to carry out new gun laws in their jurisdictions, said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University.
“If they catch someone in public with a gun, but without a permit, that’s the kind of arrest they can make,” he said. “Otherwise, police have virtually no role in enforcing any kind of gun control law.”
In Colorado, sheriffs said new laws limiting magazine capacity and requiring background checks for all firearm transactions are unenforceable because they’re too broadly written and will harm the rights of law-abiding residents who want to loan their weapons to relatives or neighbors.
“I don’t know when you got it,” said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa of the new ammunition restrictions. “I don’t know how you got it. That is taken as I won’t enforce it, but in fact you can’t enforce it.”
Sheriffs said they’ve received hundreds of calls and emails from people who are worried the laws will hamper their ability to protect themselves in their homes.
“Everywhere I go in my community — I’m not exaggerating,” said Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz, based in the northwest corner of Colorado. “People’s No. 1 concern is, ‘Are they going to take away my right to carry concealed?’ and, ‘Are they going to make me register my guns?’”
Maketa, whose county includes Colorado Springs, said he’ll join other sheriffs in filing a lawsuit challenging the new laws on the grounds that they violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the 14th Amendment that forbids states from restricting its residents’ rights.
“The sheriffs are going to sue and I am going to represent them,” said David Kopel, an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at the University of Denver. “According to District of Columbia versus Heller, you cannot ban firearms which are used by law-abiding citizens for legal purposes.”