Gun violence triggers debate

February 18, 2013 09:44 am

I have used and owned guns mainly for hunting since I was growing up, and I value my continuing ability to do so. This is not written to present a position for or against proposed gun regulations, but it is clear that recent events demonstrate the need for a free, open and constructive discussion about appropriate gun regulations to curb gun violence and improve public safety, especially for our children, while maintaining access to firearms for responsible use.

However, recent statements and actions of Sheriff Rasmussen are counter to that. The sheriff, like anyone else, is fully entitled to express his personal views, and, as sheriff, his professional perspective on gun regulation. But is it acceptable for a chief law enforcement officer to use those views to determine what laws and regulations are enforced and to use a public office and public resources to promote a single viewpoint?

The sheriff has stated that he “cannot support or enforce any federal executive orders that infringe upon lawful rights. Nor will deputies be required to support or enforce unconstitutional executive orders or laws.” The sheriff has defended this position on the basis of the Constitution that he swore to uphold, protecting rights and freedoms, and the federal government overstepping its bounds.

The sheriff also swore as part of his oath of office to support the laws of the state. New gun laws will be considered in the upcoming state legislative session. Will the sheriff also unilaterally determine which state laws will be enforced? 

Obviously, a law that has legitimately been determined to be unconstitutional doesn’t have to be enforced. But the critical question is how are laws or executive orders determined to be constitutional?

Since the 1800s, constitutionality at the federal level has been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and at the state level by the state Supreme Court — not by individual county sheriffs. 

If anyone has overstepped the bounds of government, it appears to be sheriffs, who are attempting to determine what laws are enacted, which is the role of the public through their elected representatives; selectively determining which laws will be enforced; and determining constitutionality, which is the role of the courts. How is that consistent with the separation of powers embodied in the Constitution?

If the sheriffs can individually decide which laws will be enforced, can citizens likewise individually decide which laws they have to obey depending on how they define their rights and what is constitutional?

The sheriff’s official website solicits input on gun control but only if you are willing to sign on to his letter opposing proposed federal gun regulations or “any regulations infringing on the Second Amendment,” without saying what those are.  

I attended the recent “town hall meeting” on gun control sponsored by the sheriff’s department. The sheriff spoke followed by five speakers who spoke in support the sheriff. No one offered an alternative perspective, and there was no opportunity for public comments or questions. Are those appropriate uses of public resources and funding?

We have become increasingly frustrated about the inability of our government to solve problems. We and our government officials only make that worse when we further polarize the issues rather than fostering open and unintimidated discussion that can lead to finding common ground and making reasonable, effective decisions. Isn’t that what the Constitution and democracy are really all about? Isn’t that what true freedom is? And isn’t that what good government should be?

Philip Howell lives in La Grande.