When The Sheriff Won’t Enforce The Law

TUESDAY UPDATE: A reader points us to an appearance last night on The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell by recalled Colorado Senate President John Morse, in which Morse slams Weld County Sheriff John Cooke's stated goal to repeal the post-Columbine Amendment 22 background checks at gun shows:

Would it have made a difference in Morse's very close but successful recall election for the voters to have known that the Republican who replaced him, Bernie Herpin, played a big role in the opposition to Amendment 22–which was approved by 70% of Colorado voters in the 2000 elections? We'll never know, since Democrats decided to avoid engagement on the gun issue wherever possible last summer. We've been clear in our opinion that this was a pivotal mistake. Sources tell us that Morse always agreed with that assessment, and only reluctantly avoided directly confronting Herpin on the issue on insistence from outside consultants.

What we feel very confident about is this: if the public understood what the gun lobby in Colorado really wants, and has persuaded officials like Sheriff Cooke to support, they would be appalled. This gap between public perception and the extreme reality of the gun lobby's agenda is exactly what Democrats need to address going into next year's session. One of 2013's most important lessons for Colorado Democrats is that they can never again leave this issue for opponents to frame. Original post follows.


UPDATE: By request, here's a direct link to Weld County Sheriff John Cooke's Rocky Mountain Gun Owners candidate questionnaire. The positions claimed by Sheriff Cooke in this document are unambiguous: Cooke supports repeal of the post-Columbine law requiring background checks on sales of guns at gun shows, Amendment 22. Cooke even opposes the standard Brady "insta-check" background checks required for all firearms purchases from gun dealers nationwide. In short, Cooke opposes any background checks for gun puchases. These positions put Cooke well outside the mainstream of opinions on this issue based on any polling we've ever seen.

And anyone reading today's New York Times really needs to be aware of this.


Weld County Sheriff John Cooke.

Weld County Sheriff John Cooke.

‚ÄčThe New York Times' Erica Goode reports:

Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if [Weld County] Sheriff [John] Cooke and a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions.

Some sheriffs, like Sheriff Cooke, are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it. All but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes…

Sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun laws around the country are in the minority, though no statistics exist. In Colorado, though, sheriffs like Joe Pelle of Boulder County, who support the laws and have more liberal constituencies that back them, are outnumbered.

“A lot of sheriffs are claiming the Constitution, saying that they’re not going to enforce this because they personally believe it violates the Second Amendment,” Sheriff Pelle said. “But that stance in and of itself violates the Constitution.” [Pols emphasis]

The backlash against Colorado's new gun safety laws this year has been at least figureheaded by Colorado county sheriffs more or less from the beginning. As we've tried to explain when they are invoked in the debate, elected county sheriff positions in this state have been aggressively targeted by the gun lobby. Many of the most prominent county sheriffs involved in opposition to the gun bills and the subsequent lawsuit owe their jobs to the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

RMGO's position on many gun safety policies is in fact distantly to the right of the public–as are the positions held by Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and many other Colorado sheriffs. Cooke's RMGO candidate questionnaire indicates that he opposes all background checks for gun purchases. Not just checks on "private" transactions, but getting rid of the standard background checks performed on gun sales at stores everywhere today. Sheriff Cooke even favors repeal of Amendment 22, the ballot initiative passed in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School to require background checks for gun show sales. It's key that this point not get lost: this is a law that passed with the support of over 70% of voters.

There is a large gap between the public's perception of county sheriffs as law enforcers and protectors of public safety, and their actual views on gun safety, which are markedly at odds with the public's strong support for policies like universal background checks for gun purchases. As we've said before, using county sheriffs to publicly front opposition to these bills was a brilliant propaganda stroke by the gun lobby. But if their actual extreme positions on gun laws were generally understood, we believe the public would develop serious questions about the judgment of these sheriffs.

Perhaps that will begin with word getting out that these sheriffs are refusing to enforce the law. According to Republican Attorney General John Suthers, there's no direct means in Colorado by which an overseeing political authority can compel sheriffs to enforce the law–that being the role of voters to hold these elected officials accountable. It was helpful to Democrats when the courts threw the sheriffs out of the lawsuit against the new Colorado gun safety laws, ruling they lacked standing to sue in their official capacities.

The next step should be to make Republicans explain how they really feel, in public, as often as possible, about issues like background checks for gun sales. Not just House Bill 13-1229, but the background checks the public takes for granted, broadly supports, and John Cooke wants to see repealed. Democrats need to ask about this every chance they get, and not take evasions for an answer.

Because the real answers aren't pretty.

29 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. OrangeFreeOrangeFree says:

    Recall every single one of them for shirking their constitutional duty to enforce the law.

  2. Hawkeye-X says:

    Fine. The Teabagger Sheriff will be tendering his resignation within the next 30 days. Mark my words.



  3. BlueCat says:

    Remember when Republicans bragged about being the law and order party?

  4. Sunmusing says:

    I wonder how many other laws they ummm, don't really enforce…ethics are only guidelines…

  5. notaskinnycooknotaskinnycook says:

    There is a law. The sheriff chooses not to enforce it. Something bad happens that wouldn't have if the law had been enforced. Is it just me, or does this look like a civil lawsuit in the making? 

  6. JeffcoBlueJeffcoBlue says:

    I noticed in another thread that Elliot stands up big time for the Independence Institute's Amy Oliver. Her name these days is Amy Oliver Cooke, and she's married to Weld County Sheriff John Cooke.

    Naturally, I'd like to know if Elliot Fladen supports repealing all background checks now.

  7. bullshit!bullshit! says:

    John Morse NAILED IT on MSNBC last night. Totally called out Sheriff Cooke on Amendment 22.

  8. dwyer says:

    EXCEPT – The US Justice Department has decided not to enforce federal laws on possssion of marijuana in Colorado.  The US Justice Department also decided that the DOMA federal law was unconstitutional and decided not to defend that law.  So where is Danny the Red?  We need some legal insight here.


    • Robb says:

      Successful lawsuits tend to be those where you can demonstrate harm. By not defending DOMA the only conceivable harm would be to some delicate sensibilities; it takes little imagination to anticipate potential harm from allowing firearms to fall into the hands of un-checked criminals. 

      Were I a county attorney, I'd advise elected officials of the exposure they subject themselves to by not enforcing laws on the books. Fortunately, I'm not.

      • dwyer says:

        What about government immunity?  What about prioritizing prosecutions?

        • A couple of things on immunity:

          (1) not all of the participating (or non-participating, depending on how you phrase it) sherrifs are in Republican controlled counties – they only have immunity for as long as the county (or possibly state, since the local governments get their powers from the state) wants them to be immune.

          (2) The courts can decide that intentional negligence on something like this might expose the government to claims.

          Robb is right on that…

        • As for prosecutorial discretion:

          That's fine. Let them have prosecutorial discretion, and let them lose at election time as a result. Democrats have, IMHO, been very poor at contesting the Sherrif's office.Sometimes that's because going up against the chief law enforcement officer in your area results in bad neighborly relations; other times I think it's just because Democrats don't feel they have that message, or that candidate.

  9. rathmone says:

    According to that questionnaire, Cooke publicly supports the repeal of "computerized instant Brady background check" legislation, AKA CBI Insta-check, the regular, over-the-counter-in-a-gun-store background check that is conducted on the majority of gun sales. Repeal that, the private sale check, AND Amendment 22's gun show check…and Colorado would then have NO background checks required to purchases firearms.

    • notaskinnycooknotaskinnycook says:

      And we would thus further our reputation as Wacknut Central. Gun nuts who couldn't pass a background check in neighboring states would flock here to buy firearms they couldn't get at home. Meanwhile, reasonable people would tag Colorado as a dangerous place to live if they haven't already done so. Let's see; two school shooting incidents, one in a cinema, one in a church and wasn't there one in a shopping mall? Yep, we grow 'em crazy and dangerous here.

  10. IndyNinjaIndyNinja says:

    Statement from the legal rep:

    "I represent 55 elected Colorado Sheriffs, plus one retired police officer, in a federal civil rights lawsuit that has been filed against two bills passed by the state legislature last March. Information about the case, including major case filings, is available at ColoradoGunCase.org. I am writing this post to correct a serious and inaccurate accusation that has been made about my clients in the press recently."

    "The Office of Sheriff is created by the Colorado Constitution. Colo. Const., art. XIV, sect. 8. The Constitution does not enumerate particular duties of Sheriffs. Colorado statutes do specify various duties for Sheriffs, most of which are restatements of the Sheriffs’ traditional common law powers and duties. For example: “to keep and preserve the peace in their respective counties, and to quiet and suppress all affrays, riots, and unlawful assemblies and insurrections”; to “act as fire warden of his or her respective county”; to “appoint some proper person undersheriff”; and so on. Colorado Revised Statutes sect. 30-10-501 et seq. Nothing in the list of statutory duties requires Sheriffs to enforce every state statute."

    "The Weld County oath is in the form required by the Colorado Constitution: “Every civil officer, except members of the general assembly and such inferior officers as may be by law exempted, shall, before he enters upon the duties of his office, take and subscribe an oath or affirmation to support the constitution of the United States and of the state of Colorado, and to faithfully perform the duties of the office upon which he shall be about to enter.” Art. XII, sect. 8. (The oath for the General Assembly is specified separately.)

    Thus, Sheriff Cooke’s decision about non-enforcement HB 1224 and HB 1229 was not a violation of any legal duty."

    I am not a lawyer, so I can't say confidently whether this holds up or not, but the implication is that Sheriff's work for their county, not the state, so they have no obligation to enforce state statutes. 

    Can anyone else speak to this?

  11. Negev says:

    How can you tell if a magazine was purchased before July 1st?

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