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Police can exercise discretion about which laws to enforce, like ignoring a jaywalker while chasing a drunk driver. But a group of rural sheriffs in Washington state is taking that discretion further. They don't want to enforce a new statewide gun law. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's the latest example of a controversial school of thought among some sheriffs who believe they have the right to resist what they see as government overreach.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When it comes to gun laws, things can sometimes get heated. For instance, here's Bob Songer, the sheriff of Washington's Klickitat County, on the conspiracy-oriented radio show Infowars last month. He was answering a hypothetical question about what he'd do if authorities came for someone's guns because that person had, say, PTSD.
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BOB SONGER: It will not happen on my watch. I will stand there with that individual citizen and prevent that from happening. And if need be, it could get ugly.
KASTE: That kind of gun seizure scenario is not about to happen in Washington, but some conservative sheriffs think that day is coming, especially after the approval of a new law that tightens background checks, bans the sale of semi-automatic rifles to people under 21 and makes it a crime to fail to store a gun safely if that gun falls into the wrong hands.
About a third of Washington's 39 sheriffs have expressed qualms about enforcing the law. And Sheriff Songer's probably the most adamant. Here he is again on the phone just a few days ago.
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SONGER: I believe it's an unconstitutional law. And as an elected sheriff and a constitutional sheriff, I believe it violates the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, more specifically, violates Washington's state constitution.
KASTE: That thing that Songer called himself there, a constitutional sheriff - that's not just a random term. It's a phrase that crops up quite a bit in the West. Basically, it's the notion that elected sheriffs should refuse to enforce laws that they find unconstitutional. Jared Goldstein is a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law, and he's researched the roots of this idea.
JARED GOLDSTEIN: It dates back to a movement from the '60s and '70s called the Posse Comitatus movement that itself came out of the Ku Klux Klan.
KASTE: He says, originally, it was about resisting desegregation and federal taxes. Later, it was about challenging federal ownership of public land. But under President Obama, the focus shifted to opposing gun control.
GOLDSTEIN: That isn't to say that there's a moral equivalence to the Klan and these constitutional sheriffs, but the idea that they can refuse to enforce laws that they disagree with is just the same.
RICHARD MACK: He's full of baloney. He obviously doesn't know me because that is not where this came from.
KASTE: That's Richard Mack, the man who popularized the term, constitutional sheriff. His Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association promotes what he calls the doctrine of interposition, the idea that sheriffs should stand up to laws that violate people's rights, including minority civil rights. But Mack's focus is on the right to bear arms.
MACK: I hope we have a law enforcement community in this country that are smart enough and dedicated enough to the Constitution, knowledgeable enough of the Constitution that we know and understand the Second Amendment when it says, shall not be infringed. And I swore to uphold and defend that - that that's exactly what we do.
KASTE: It's hard to gauge Mack's influence, though, because he won't reveal which sheriffs have joined his association or taken his courses. Mirya Holman teaches political science at Tulane University and researches the attitudes of sheriffs around the country and the prevalence of the constitutional sheriff idea.
MIRYA HOLMAN: It is a thing that exists in that there are sheriffs that endorse this. There's also, though, a lot of sheriffs that wouldn't sort of fully endorse it but like some of the ideas contained within it.
KASTE: Whether or not they use the term, constitutional sheriff, she says this kind of pushback is a symptom of the political polarization between urban and rural areas.
HOLMAN: Sheriffs are seeing laws being made, potentially by voters in urban areas, and feeling like they need to protect their population from these people that have very different attitudes about the way the world should be.
KASTE: That's certainly what's driving things in Washington state. The new gun law was a ballot initiative backed mostly by urban voters. And in Seattle last week, the state's Democratic Governor Jay Inslee called on the rural sheriffs to leave the job of interpreting the Constitution to the courts.
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JAY INSLEE: This is a futile kind of grandstanding by these sheriffs. We understand they're politicians. And so they've acted, unfortunately, more like politicians and less like sheriffs.
KASTE: The Democratic attorney general warned the sheriffs that they could be liable to lawsuits if they refuse to do background checks and that leads to a gun crime. The governor also said that he'd send in the state patrol to enforce the law in the places where the sheriffs won't. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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