Michael Ciaglo/The Colorado Springs Gazette, via Associated Press
John Cooke is among the Colorado sheriffs who are resisting enforcement of new state gun laws.
By ERICA GOODE
GREELEY, Colo. — When Sheriff John Cooke of Weld County explains in speeches why he is not enforcing the state’s new gun laws, he holds up two 30-round magazines. One, he says, he had before July 1, when the law banning the possession, sale or transfer of the large-capacity magazines went into effect. The other, he “maybe” obtained afterward.
He shuffles the magazines, which look identical, and then challenges the audience to tell the difference.
“How is a deputy or an officer supposed to know which is which?” he asks.
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. But if Sheriff 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. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it. All but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes.
The resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high.
In New York State, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed one of the toughest gun law packages in the nation last January, two sheriffs have said publicly they would not enforce the laws — inaction that Mr. Cuomo said would set “a dangerous and frightening precedent.” The sheriffs’ refusal is unlikely to have much effect in the state: According to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, since 2010 sheriffs have filed less than 2 percent of the two most common felony gun charges. The vast majority of charges are filed by the state or local police.
In Liberty County, Fla., a jury in October acquitted a sheriff who had been suspended and charged with misconduct after he released a man arrested by a deputy on charges of carrying a concealed firearm. The sheriff, who was immediately reinstated by the governor, said he was protecting the man’s Second Amendment rights.
And in California, a delegation of sheriffs met with Gov. Jerry Brown this fall to try to persuade him to veto gun bills passed by the Legislature, including measures banning semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and lead ammunition for hunting (Mr. Brown signed the ammunition bill but vetoed the bill outlawing the rifles).
“Our way of life means nothing to these politicians, and our interests are not being promoted in the legislative halls of Sacramento or Washington, D.C.,” said Jon E. Lopey, the sheriff of Siskiyou County, Calif., one of those who met with Governor Brown. He said enforcing gun laws was not a priority for him, and he added that residents of his rural region near the Oregon border are equally frustrated by regulations imposed by the federal Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
This year, the new gun laws in Colorado have become political flash points. Two state senators who supported the legislation were recalled in elections in September; a third resigned last month rather than face a recall. Efforts to repeal the statutes are already in the works.
Countering the elected sheriffs are some police chiefs, especially in urban areas, and state officials who say that the laws are not only enforceable but that they are already having an effect. Most gun stores have stopped selling the high-capacity magazines for personal use, although one sheriff acknowledged that some stores continued to sell them illegally. Some people who are selling or otherwise transferring guns privately are seeking background checks.
Eric Brown, a spokesman for Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado, said, “Particularly on background checks, the numbers show the law is working.” The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has run 3,445 checks on private sales since the law went into effect, he said, and has denied gun sales to 70 people.
Jack Healy contributed reporting from Denver.