Sheriff vows not to enforce Colorado's tough new gun-control bills

The Colorado legislature has passed several gun control bills. If they're signed into law, one sheriff says he will not enforce them – mirroring the sentiments of many other rural sheriffs.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Weld County Sheriff John Cooke (c.) backed by a group of fellow sheriffs, testifies against proposed gun-control legislation at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver earlier this month. Sheriff Cooke has said he will not enforce the bills.

Colorado is on track to become the first state after New York to significantly increase gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings, with several bills passed by the legislature now awaiting an expected signature by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The degree to which these measures get enforced, however, is a question mark.

Even before the bills had passed, the County Sheriffs of Colorado came out against the measures – urging a one-year wait after Newtown before any gun-control legislation was introduced. And now, at least one Colorado sheriff has said he doesn't support the new laws, and doesn't plan to enforce them.

“They’re feel-good, knee-jerk reactions that are unenforceable,” Weld County Sheriff John Cooke told the Greeley Tribune. "Criminals are still going to get their guns."

The prospect of vigilante cops selectively choosing which laws to enforce is disturbing to gun-control activists, who say Sheriff Cooke is essentially encouraging lawlessness. But Cooke's comments point to a deeper split in law enforcement that is mirrored nationwide, particularly on issues like gun control.

While the mostly rural county sheriffs have opposed the bills, the more urban and suburban Colorado Association of Police Chiefs has backed them. Here in Colorado – a bellwether state where the solid blue of its metropolitan areas is counterbalanced by the deep red of its traditional Western roots – the split is readily apparent. The gun-control bills here have been hotly debated and protested.

But the dynamics are the same across much of America, experts say. 

"Most counties are predominantly rural, and sheriffs are elected officials responding to a predominantly rural constituency – they're not so enthusiastic about gun control," says Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Police chiefs, on the other hand, serve in cities and suburbs where they're appointed by mayors.

For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police supports ammunition-capacity limits and an assault-weapons ban, while the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association has been a vocal opponent of any federal limits on gun ownership.

The Colorado laws include a universal background check aimed at closing loopholes in private gun sales and a 15-round limit on ammunition magazines.

Ultimately, comments like Cooke's may serve more of a political purpose than a practical one, says Professor Kleck. In terms of the magazine-capacity limit and the universal background check, "even if you like these measures, you have to admit there’s not much of a role for police to enforce them," he says. "For all practical purposes, neither of these measures is directly enforceable in usual sense."

That doesn't make such comments from a law-enforcement agent any less outrageous, says Tom Mauser, spokesman for Colorado Ceasefire, a gun-control advocacy group, and the parent of a boy who was killed in the 1999 Columbine shooting. "There are other laws that are difficult to enforce," says Mr. Mauser. "They don’t like these laws, and that’s why they’re saying it. They're trying to be heroes to the people who fought this legislation by making these statements."

The laws are important, says Mauser, because "we have to make it more difficult for the wrong people to get ahold of these guns, not easier. The people saying these things aren't working to make it more difficult, they're essentially falling back on making it easier."

Cooke isn't the only public figure to advocate disobedience when it comes to the new legislation.

While the bills were being debated, some Colorado lawmakers not only disagreed with the bill on magazine limits, but also stated that they planned to disobey it if it became law.

"I will willfully and purposefully and civilly disobey this law," said Republican Sen. Greg Brophy, when he spoke against it in the state Senate last week.

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