GOLDENDALE, Washington — From his temporary office in the basement of the Klickitat County Courthouse, Sheriff Bob Songer is carrying out a provocative mission: He’s refusing to enforce a new Washington State gun control law.
The law, Initiative 1639, raises the age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21, expands background checks, and adds new rules for the safe storage of firearms. Some of its provisions went into effect on Jan. 1; the rest are supposed to start in July.
But Songer says the law is unconstitutional, and he insists he won’t carry it out, nor, as an elected sheriff, should he be obligated to.
“Even if it was a legal law, you have discretionary power,” Songer told VICE News. “There is no other law enforcement official in the entire United States except a sheriff that's elected to office by the people.”
Songer is a leading figure in a movement that’s become the go-to response to new gun-control laws: law enforcement officials declaring their counties “sanctuaries” for gun rights. So far, more than 100 counties in at least seven states have made the move. In Washington alone, more than 20 sheriffs have said they will follow Songer’s lead.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson thinks a lot of that is bluster. But he’s also taking steps to ensure the law is fully enforced.
“We've had a death penalty in our state for many, many years,” Ferguson said. “I'm personally quite opposed to the death penalty. But my office helps defend death penalty cases across the state.”
In February, Ferguson sent an open letter to sheriffs across the state warning them that their counties' residents could face civil penalties or liability if the law is not enforced. Earlier this month, he penned another letter reminding gun shops that they must follow the new law, regardless of what their local sheriff tells them.
“To me, where I draw the line is what's discretionary and what's not,” Ferguson said. “You will see in the state 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, and 20-year-olds can no longer purchase AR-15s. That's going to happen. Period. You will see in the state enhanced background checks done for semiautomatic weapons. Effective July 1, that's going to happen. Period.”
This segment originally aired March 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.