Littwin: Never mind secession, we got sheriffs

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]elcome to Colorado, where (some) gun laws are not laws at all.


I know this because I read it on the front page of the New York Times Monday: “Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Laws on Gun Control.” It’s no secret. It was just a little off-putting to see it in print. First it was secession, and now it’s nullification.

And here’s the thing, there seems to be little we can do about it, other than to be mildly embarrassed. And, in the days so soon after the Arapahoe shooting, more than a little sad.

Let’s see if we can follow the logic here. Both houses of the Colorado legislature passed a few modest — if controversial — gun bills. The governor then signed them into law.

That’s how we make laws in the state. But if only it were as simple as that.

[pullquote]He says there are many laws officials choose not to enforce. He points out that the feds have decided not to enforce marijuana laws in Colorado, for example, because of a conflict with state laws. He doesn’t say how exactly that should lead to unenforced gun laws.[/pullquote]

Some people who didn’t like the laws decided to try to recall a few of the senators who voted for them. The recall laws are generally understood as a way to rid ourselves of legislators who are guilty of misfeasance or malfeasance or some other kind of feasance. But that’s not the way the recall laws are written.

Meaning, if people want to get to rid of their legislators, they can. You can argue that too many recalls make for bad governing — that it means our legislators must be even less brave in the face of tough votes. But still, that’s how democracy works, more or less.

So, to recap. The legislature passes the modest — if controversial — gun bills. The governor signs them. Two senators get recalled. The laws, though, remain in effect.

Except, they don’t. Not necessarily. Not everywhere.

Which brings us to the sheriffs. As you may remember, 55 of 62 Colorado sheriffs joined a lawsuit to overthrow the new gun laws, saying they violate (salute when you say it) the Second Amendment. They don’t think the laws are constitutional, not that they’re experts on the Constitution. They don’t think the laws are enforceable, which is debatable. They say enforcement is, in any case, a low priority, which is the kind of discretion that we allow law enforcement.

And so, many of the sheriffs, particularly in rural Colorado, are simply not enforcing the laws. I checked with some law professors, who say there isn’t much anyone can do about it — except for the voters who elect these sheriffs. And in rural Colorado, it’s just possible that many voters may not be unhappy with the direction these sheriffs are taking.

But do we really think sheriffs should be allowed to nullify laws?

To learn more, I call Weld County sheriff John Cooke, who’s been a leader in the anti-gun-laws camp and whose picture ran in the New York Times along with the article. He’s in the non-enforce coalition. He’s in the gun-laws-are-low-priority group. He’s also in the these-laws-are-unconstitutional-but-that’s-just-his-opinion camp.

When I ask him about it, he goes into a long speech about how the new gun laws are poorly written, too vague and unenforceable. And so he won’t enforce them. But you can almost make out the wink in his voice, even over the phone, all the way from Greeley. A judge has ruled the laws aren’t vaguely written, but I’m pretty sure it’s not whether Cooke thinks the laws are enforceable, but whether he wants to enforce them.

We discuss the background-check law, which, if you look at the statistics, seems to work. So far, 70 applicants who have been checked on private sales have been turned away. That’s 70 people who shouldn’t have guns, but who would have, if not for the law. But Cooke says the law is pointless. And also unenforceable, saying (in an argument you may have heard before) criminals will buy guns illegally if they can’t get them legally. So there’s that.

We discuss the law limiting magazine size to 15 rounds, in response to the massacres in Aurora and Newtown. That one’s easy, Cooke says. It’s not just that the law is unenforceable, but that no one is breaking it — not that he’s checked. “If someone was selling them illegally, I’d be getting complaints,” he says, “and I haven’t had one.” So, there’s that.

Desperate, I try a hypothetical. They’re always handy in these situations. What, I ask, if John’s Gun Shop started advertising 30-round magazines, knowing that Cooke says he’s not going to enforce the law? What would he do? Would he arrest old John?

“You can come up with all the hypotheticals you want,” he says. “But I’m not going to answer that.”

He laughs. We both laugh. We both know.

The Times story cites an Arizona sheriff who founded an organization that insists sheriffs are the final arbiter of what is and isn’t constitutional. I ask Cooke if he agrees.

“I don’t agree with that,” Cooke says. “I don’t belong to that organization. I never once said I get to decide what’s constitutional. That’s above my pay grade. But if a reporter asks me if I think a law is unconstitutional, I’m allowed to say, aren’t I? I’m allowed to say that I think there are more heinous crimes than a guy who sells his shotgun to his next door neighbor that he’s known for 20 years.”

I try another hypothetical. What if the sheriff in the neighboring county, I ask, decides not to enforce civil rights laws because he says they’re unenforceable. Wouldn’t that be a problem?

Cooke thinks for a minute. He says he doubts that would ever happen in Colorado. He says the voters wouldn’t put up with that. He doesn’t quite admit that it could be worrying, but he seems to come close. Then he points out that there are many laws that officials choose not to enforce. He points out correctly, for example, that the feds have decided not to enforce marijuana laws in Colorado because of a conflict with state laws. He doesn’t say how exactly that should lead to unenforced gun laws.

But this is what he told the Times: “In my oath it says I’ll uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Colorado. It doesn’t say I have to uphold every law passed by the legislature.”

And yet, I wonder if that’s how the Founding Fathers would have seen it. Because I looked, and I couldn’t find anywhere in either the U.S. Constitution or Colorado Constitution where it says that, if all else fails, a sheriff shall decide.


  1. Regarding the new gun control laws, the State Senate legislated against the will of the people and the governor took Mayor Bloomberg’s advice and signed them into law. It would be my guess that if the senators and governor would share their communication logs that there were far more people against these laws than for them. These sheriffs can be recalled the same way Senators Morse and Giron were. If you think you’ve got the numbers, mount your own recall efforts. Polls show that support for gun control laws is waning. Maybe your billionaire buddy, Bloomberg can toss in a few hundred thousand more dollars to help.
    As far as the 70 private sales that were denied by the new background checks, why don’t you be do some investigative journalism and find out how many were due to administrative errors, or were veterans who checked the block that they wanted help managing their VA benefits and are now on a list that doesn’t allow them to purchase a weapon. People should truly be concerned about the erosion of their constitutional rights. If you’re paying attention and honest you’ll admit that it’s not just 2nd amendment rights that are eroding, 1st and 4th amendment rights are under attack as well. The caveat of paying attention and being honest will stop most of you from making those observations, though.
    Good Day.

  2. Perhaps Mr Johnson could elaborate on how his 1st, 2nd, and 4th amendment rights are being eroded. It’s the same stale argument we hear ad nauseum from the gung ho gun nut zealots who imagine government spooks on every street corner.

    I don’t know about you. The last I checked I’ve been secure in my person, house, papers and effects against unreasonable search and seizures by any government official. So long as I’ve not violated any federal, state or local laws I’m secure in my home. I can attend the church of my choice, exercise my right of free speech which I am doing now, protest peacefully or petition the government for redress of grievances.

    As far as the 2nd amendment is concerned let’s start a movement to amend the wording to exclude ownership of some of the murderous weaponry the zealots seem to covet as part of their home arsenals. The Founding Fathers left the door open to do so in Article V.

    Doc Johnson needs to pay attention.

  3. Good to hear that the Cathcher is secure in the house. Dad and Mom must make sure that the doors are locked up at night. No mention of feeling secure on the phone. Either not concerned because it’s someone else’s phone being monitored, or feels obligated to let the government listen since it’s providing it. Catcher’s political organization isn’t being investigated by the IRS, so that’s not a problem. I assume that the church of choice is not the Catholic Church, so it’s OK that the government is trying to impose it’s will on it through the ACA. From what I gather, Catcher’s rights are all still intact, but to hell with anyone else’s. I guess that’s one of the big differences between me and him/her. I’m concerned about everyone’s rights, even those who don’t agree with me.
    Regarding amending the wording of the 2nd amendment, perhaps we could change it to exclude left leaners from possessing weapons since most of the recent high profile shootings have been done people (used loosely) who tend to lean that way.
    Have a nice day.

  4. So what exactly are we arguing about here: gun control or law enforcement or a little of both?

    Mr. Littwin is a long-time proponent of gun control\reform\confiscation although he has never made clear which of those options he prefers but my guess, and it’s only a guess, is confiscation. Good luck with that.

    Law enforcement is something Mr. Littwin rarely writes about but his last paragraph makes clear his belief that sheriffs should not be the final arbiter on which laws to ignore. What he fails to mention are remedies and as a few readers have pointed out there are several. Mr. Bolton points out that sheriffs can be voted out of office or, as Mr. Johnson suggests, they can be recalled or Ryecatcher correctly observes the US Constitution can be changed. None of these was mentioned by Mr. Littwin although it’s difficult to believe he was unaware they existed.

    But does Mr. Littwin really want all laws enforced or only those he ideologically agrees with?

    For example, how does he feel about so-called “sanctuary cities”? Wikipedia defines sanctuary cities as those “that do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws” The key words being “enforce” and “laws”. lists over 30 sanctuary cities nationwide and 9 in Colorado:

    Commerce City
    Federal Heights
    Fort Collins

    How does Mr. Littwin feel about those 9 municipalities ignoring immigration laws? Well, he doesn’t say.

  5. Well, as a retired LEO exposed to Littwin’s tripe since being born/raised in Denver he most assuredly is left of center–way left. LEO’s do not agree with confiscation of firearms. The first 2 cities I worked for often had citizens with rifle/shotguns in pickup rifle racks. Nobody got excited–could have been a hammer and I never saw one pop up by itself and discharge.
    I could recite an often heard phrase, “cops can respond in minutes when seconds count” but it will probably take hours–so my long time neighbors like me walking out with gun on hip and don’t pressure the city (NOT Denver)to arrest me for disturbing the peace plus they know that being secure in their home includes all the land around the house (its called curtilage–not a field) Learn to ignore sources like sanctuary cities, liberal papers, liberal TV, liberal magazines, left wing educational institutions, and vote in sheriffs (64 now?) that encourage both Constitutions. If you are not hunting (and Colorado Parks & Wildlife seems intent on killing a billion dollar industry) you can tape two 15 round mags together (ala Vietnam) or clamp the two together. Just takes nano seconds to switch ends and mucho bucks to buy ammo for 30 rounds. The General Assembly did a knee jerk reaction to Sandy Hook (a stolen gun BTW)and should be voted out!!

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