Oregon county passes initiative allowing sheriff to void gun control laws if he thinks they’re unconstitutional
By Natalie Johnson
Reprinted with permission of The Daily Signal
Nearly a month after a tragic mass shooting shook Umpqua Community College, a rural Oregon county roughly two hours west of the school passed a measure directing the sheriff to bypass state and federal gun laws if he judges them unconstitutional.
Coos County residents smoothly approved the Second Amendment Preservation Ordinance Tuesday with more than 60 percent voting for its passage. The ordinance bars public employees from using county funds to enforce any laws the sheriff deems unconstitutional.
It also prohibits enforcement of Oregon’s recent law requiring background checks on private gun transfers, including transactions between friends. County employees who violate the measure could face a $2,000 fine.
Rob Taylor, a retired optician who sponsored the measure, said the residents he spoke to while helping collect nearly 2,000 signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot were “thrilled” about it.
“We are a big gun ownership area. Coos County has the highest percentage of concealed carry licenses in the entire state,” Taylor told The Daily Signal. “They’re tired of having their rights eroded, and not just under the Second Amendment, all of their rights, so they were thrilled that somebody was trying to do something about it.”
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The National Rifle Association said the measure’s passage reflected a uniform sentiment among gun owners in the U.S.
“The ordinance passed in Coos County is a sign of the frustration law-abiding gun owners are feeling all across the country.” NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide told The Daily Signal.
But many are questioning its legality.
Coos County Sheriff Craig Zanni, who is now tasked with deciding which gun laws are in line with the Constitution, told the Oregonian last month that while he is a strong gun rights advocate, he had concerns about whether he had the authority to make those decisions.
“I’m not sure the courts would agree with that concept,” he said. “I would just bet there would be some legal challenges to it.”
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution leaves “no question that federal law trumps state law” and that any sheriff who violates a state law requirement could run into legal issues.
“On the other hand, while federal law can override state and local laws, the federal government cannot force local officials to enforce federal law,” he noted.
Andrew Kloster, also a legal fellow at Heritage, added that while the sheriff is an “agent of the state” and has to abide by Oregon law, if the state passed a law that requires its officials, including the sheriff, to violate the Second Amendment, individual citizens could pursue a lawsuit or he could resign from his job.
Taylor said a court challenge is exactly the point.
“One of the reasons we enacted this measure is that we wanted to challenge [the state’s] background check law through the judicial process,” he said. “The problem is we’re just average citizens, we don’t have a lot of money so we can’t just take these challenges to court. Lawyers cost a lot of money and court fees cost a lot of money.”
He said Oregon’s “liberal” initiative laws enabled him to put the measure on a ballot, which he hopes will ultimately allow residents frustrated with the state’s new background check law to avoid an individual court challenge.
“We’ve put it in the realm of being an actual ordinance so that one government entity will have to challenge another government entity without forcing individuals to have to pay for it by themselves.”