DENVER–A group of 54 Colorado county sheriffs filed a federal lawsuit Friday against two newly signed Democratic gun-control bills, calling the measures unconstitutional, impossible to enforce and a threat to public safety.
“This isn’t good public policy. These are really awful bills,” said Weld County Sheriff John Cooke at a Friday press conference. “They are unenforceable and encourage disrespect for the law, which puts both law enforcement and the public in greater danger.”
The lawsuit challenges two bills: House Bill 1224, which restricts ammunition-magazine capacity to 15 rounds or fewer, and House Bill 1229, which mandates background checks on all gun sales and transfers, including temporary transfers.
David Kopel, a constitutional-law expert and research director of the Independence Institute, said the bills violate the Constitution as well as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to the sheriffs, the plaintiffs include Women for Concealed Carry, the Colorado Outfitters Association, and Outdoor Buddies, a charity for the disabled.
Kopel, the lead attorney on the case, said the bills fail to offer “reasonable accommodations” for the disabled as required under the federal law. He said the measures also create situations that make it virtually impossible for law-abiding citizens to comply with the law.
For example, the background-check bill would require checks on all private transfers, including scenarios in which a gun owner fleeing a burning home drops off his firearms with a neighbor. A failure to undergo a background check in that situation is punishable under the bill by 18 months in jail.
Getting a background check under less dire circumstances is also problematic because all checks must be performed by a federally licensed dealer for $10.
“There will be very few if any firearms dealers who will be willing to undertake this time-consuming process,” said Kopel. “In practice, it may be almost impossible for citizens who want to go through the background-check process for a private transfer to be able to do so.”
The gun bills emerged in the wake of the July 20 Aurora theater shooting, which left 12 dead and 58 injured. Prior to Friday’s press conference, relatives of several shooting victims released statements decrying the lawsuit.
“As someone whose family has been affected by gun violence and worked in law enforcement for many years, it is disappointing to see the majority of sheriffs in this state turn gun safety and the safety of families and citizens of this state into a political issue,” said Dave Hoover, a police detective whose nephew, A.J. Boik, was killed in the Aurora shooting.
“Let’s encourage the sheriffs to focus on public safety and enforce the laws they have sworn to uphold, instead of playing politics,” said Hoover in a statement to KDVR-TV.
Cooke said that it was Democratic legislators and gun-control groups, not the sheriffs, politicizing the firearms issue.
“We’re not the ones playing politics with this,” said Cooke. “We believe the legislature are the ones playing politics. We’re standing up for our constituents and the Constitution.”
The state legislature approved three gun-control bills in March with no Republican votes during a session that featured intensive lobbying by gun-control and gun-rights groups. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bills in March along with a “signing statement” that attempted to clarify questions surrounding enforcement of the bills.
“The governor signed the bills knowing how bad they were,” said Cooke. “In a recent radio interview, the governor even admitted that the magazine bill will be nearly impossible for law enforcement to enforce, yet he signed it anyway.”
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa said he would enforce the bills, which take effect July 1, if it were possible.
“It’s not a matter of whether I choose to enforce them or not, it’s that they’re unenforceable,” said Maketa. “I can’t enforce what’s unenforceable.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 54 of the state’s 64 sheriffs, not the County Sheriffs of Colorado, which opposed the gun-control bills. The Independence Institute has set up a legal-defense fund to cover the costs of the lawsuit.