Don't ignore laws, even if they're bad

Published on Wednesday, 18 December 2013 22:18 - Written by

Ends are important, but means matter. Some U.S. sheriffs are aiming for the right end when they refuse to enforce gun laws they see as unconstitutional. But refusing to enforce laws is wrong, in and of itself. That’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in, constitutionally.

Bad gun laws need to be addressed in the courts — judicial review is a vital part of our system. And that’s the thing. It’s part of the system, a system that has worked for more than 200 years. We shouldn’t undermine that system, even if the end is just.

“There is, after all, a reason that we establish firm processes by which our laws are passed, by which our elections are conducted, and by which our business is done,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote in National Review recently. “There is a reason that we render sacred the documents that outline the structure and power of our governments, that we wall off those areas into which they cannot intrude, and — most important — that we react with such indignation when the powerful simply flout the rules. It matters. Ultimately, what distinguishes the Anglo-American tradition is its lack in its legal system of that most potent enemy of ordered liberty: caprice.”

Those sheriffs are acting on an understandable impulse. And they seem to have some precedent for their actions — the president himself has chosen not to enforce certain immigration laws. Even local law enforcement officials and district attorneys have some leeway in what they do; it’s called “prosecutorial discretion.”

But this is something else.

“Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control,” the New York Times reported last week. “But if Sheriff [John] Cooke and a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions. Some sheriffs, like Sheriff Cooke, are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights.”

Other sheriffs in other states are taking similar positions. They’re refusing to arrest people on charges related to new gun control laws.

The impulse and the goal are right; the means are wrong.

First, it’s a piecemeal response that will leave most citizens unprotected. One sheriff’s actions in his own county won’t help residents of the next county over.

A far better approach is to energetically challenge legislation in the courts. That way, bad laws are struck down for everyone, not merely set aside.

A second reason this is the wrong way to go about things is respect for the law. Sheriffs demand that everyone else respect the law — by ignoring one based on their own judgment, they’re undermining their own authority.

Finally, we have the Constitution itself. In its genius, it provides us a means to address bad laws. Let’s use them.