Editorial: This is what happens when law enforcement opposes a gun initiative

Washington state voters approved the controversial gun measure Initiative 1639 last November despite the opposition of several state law enforcement organizations.

That lack of support from police and sheriffs was a red flag, we thought, and was a key reason we recommended against I-1639. Approving sweeping new gun control laws without the support of those who have to enforce them is bound to cause problems.

Turns out our hunch was right.

Early in the year, law enforcement officials throughout the state — predominantly in Eastern Washington — made their disdain for I-1639 loud and clear, with many claiming they wouldn’t actively enforce it.

Most said they are waiting until the courts rule on the constitutionality of the measure before following through on enforcing the new gun rules.

Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond and Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher have said their deputies would not make arrests, but would document possible I-1639 violations if they encounter them and send the information to the county prosecutor to review.

That strategy seems to accomplish two things: It doesn’t completely ignore I-1639 (which would be wrong), but as elected officials it helps Raymond and Hatcher send a message to constituents that they are not comfortable with the new law.

In addition, our Franklin County commissioners also went on the record and formally opposed I-1639. In January, Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier proposed the resolution, declaring his belief that I-1639 is unconstitutional.

He said at the time that the resolution would “let the West Side know they don’t run Eastern Washington.”

This East-West divide was obvious in the election results. In Eastern Washington, 18 of 20 counties rejected I-1639 by significant margins, with Benton and Franklin counties in the opposition group.

Overall, the initiative was approved in just 14 of the state’s 39 counties, but several of those carry the bulk of the state’s population, so it was enough to pass the measure.

This division is problematic.

The majority of counties in the state opposed I-1639, and law enforcement leaders in many of those same counties are resisting it.

While that may be what most of those county residents want, in general the rhetoric sends a terrible message.

Average citizens shouldn’t get to choose which laws they obey. But when it comes to I-1639, they are getting encouragement by some law enforcement and county officials to do just that.

Instead of refusing to abide by the law, efforts should be made to change it or get rid of the unworkable pieces in it, regardless of where it is in the courts.

I-1639 has gone into full effect this month. Among its requirements, it raises the age to buy a semiautomatic assault weapon from 18 to 21, which is the same for buying a handgun. It also adds a 10-day waiting period and requires additional background checks after the gun is purchased.

Also, gun owners must secure their firearms in storage or with trigger locks in their homes.

West Richland Police Chief Ben Majetich said that, locally, he thinks the additional background checks will be the most demanding piece of implementing I-1639, but that his office will oblige.

On the state level, however, he called I-1639 “a mess.”

The state is supposed to establish a single point background check system, as well as develop a way to verify if gun owners remain eligible to have a gun under state and federal law.

Majetich questioned how the state is going to accomplish these two components of I-1639. They seem unworkable.

And that’s the main problem.

The Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, the Washington State Troopers Association, the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association and the Washington State Sheriffs Association all opposed I-1639 when it was on the ballot.

They knew it was too complicated and too difficult to enforce. So here we are.

Those who really want to make progress on gun reform need to make sure proposed changes to the law are supported by the people who have to enforce them. Otherwise we’re left with a confusing mess.