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December 22, 2013

Colorado Sheriffs, Gun Control, and the Rule of Law

By Thomas Magstadt

This article criticizes county sheriffs who defy the law and argues that when cops refuse to enforce laws they don't like representative democracy, which is based on the rule of law, is threatened.


A county sheriff in Greeley was recently featured in a New York Times article focusing on a particularly vexing problem in political philosophy and law enforcement, namely what can be done when officers of the law choose not to enforce a law they don't like.   It's a version of the old fox-guarding-the-hen-house scenario.  

Motorist having a bad day... April 25, 2013
Motorist having a bad day... April 25, 2013
(Image by osseous)
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The Times article reports that "Sheriff John Cooke of Weld County explains in speeches why he is not enforcing the state's new gun laws" by holding up "two 30-round magazines".   He tells audiences "maybe" he purchased one after the new law banning bigger than 15-round clips went into effect but who knows which one?  

He argues that the law is unenforceable, but that's not really why he's on a personal crusade.   The fact is, he doesn't like the law, and he's got lots of company in serried ranks.   Last May, all but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado joined a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes.

A lot of Colorado voters, especially outside of Denver, are opposed to tighter gun controls, too.  

People have a right to their opinions.   Sheriffs are people.   The question is whether sheriffs have a right to act on their opinions by not enforcing laws they don't like.

Correct answer:   No.

Colorado is not alone.   Sheriffs in New York, Florida, Arizona, and California have also challenged tighter gun laws.   There's no reason to believe many sheriffs, especially in the red states of the Midwest, Far West, and Deep South, are not in sympathy.

In Arizona, a state legislator named Brenda Barton has joined former county sheriff Richard Mack in urging "Constitutional Sheriffs" to defy the federal government.   They believe county sheriffs are the highest law of the land with the power to nullify federal law "and even arrest federal authorities".  

Since the Newtown massacre a year ago, some 1,500 state gun bills have been introduced across the country, 178 passed at least one chamber of a state legislature, and 109 have become law, according to a new database.   Nearly two-thirds of the new laws (70) actually ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners.   With few exceptions, these laws were passed in states where the Republican party controls the legislature and governorship. Most of the 39 bills that tighten regulations were passed in states where Democrats are firmly in control.  

But that's not a slam-dunk either, as two members of the Colorado Senate who voted for stricter gun control found out when they lost in recall elections last September.   (A third senator facing recall resigned her seat in November to avoid a similar fate.)   This, despite the fact that the Governor is a Democrat and both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly have Democratic majorities.

Message: vote against guns in Colorado and put a target on your back.


The latest Colorado school shooting, the one that occurred last week at Arapahoe High School, could have been much worse.   But it was bad enough.   The perpetrator, a student who had earlier been disciplined by the school librarian (apparently was his primary target), took his own life.   Unfortunately, not before shooting 17-year-old Claire Davis in the head at pointblank range with a pump-action shotgun.

That shooting occurred not far from Aurora, the scene of the July 2012 school massacre that left 12 dead and 58 injured.   Aurora is not far from Littleton, the home of Columbine High School, where 12 students and a teacher were gunned down in 1999.   Claire Davis was rushed to a hospital in Littleton, where her family said she was in a coma.

The proximity of these horrific shootings at suburban -- not inner-city -- schools is stunning and pernicious.   What's even more stunningly pernicious is that elected country sheriffs in Colorado of all places would refuse to enforce laws aimed at protecting the innocent from senseless gun violence.


Everyone who's ever tried to raise chickens knows that no chicken is safe when there's a fox around.   If the voters are too chicken to get rid of a county sheriff who places himself above the law, and elected officials at the state and federal levels look the other way, the rule of law is dead.   And nobody is safe.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:
Tom Magstadt earned his doctorate in international relations at Johns Hopkins (SAIS). He is a twice-tenured college professor and political science chair. He also served as a foreign intelligence analyst, a Visiting Professor at the Air University (Maxwell Air Force Base), and a Fulbright lecturer in the Czech Republic. His books include Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues; Nations and Governments: Comparative Politics in Regional Perspective, and An Empire If You Can Keep it: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy. His articles, essays, and op-eds have appeared in Worldview, the National Review, the Political Science Reviewer, USA Today Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Des Moines Register, Omaha World-Herald, Kansas City Star, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Sioux Falls Argue-Leader. For several years he was a regular contributor to the Prague Post. He has taught at the Graduate School of International Management, Augustana College, the University of Nebraska (Kearney), the Air War College, the University of West Bohemia, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the University of Kansas.