Davis sheriff’s deputies won’t enforce laws that infringe on gun rights

The policy, which Sheriff Kelly Sparks calls “proactive,” is symbolic, University of Utah law professor says.

A man carries his weapon during a second amendment gun rally at Utah State Capitol in February 2020. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Officers with the Davis County sheriff will no longer enforce a federal law or presidential order that infringes on the Second Amendment.

The move was unanimously endorsed by the Davis County Commission.

The sheriff’s office will enforce only “clearly established laws which do not infringe on individual rights” established by the Second Amendment. County law enforcement officers are also prohibited from enforcing any laws or presidential orders that are “unconstitutional” under the policy.

While the new policy may send a message, it’s largely symbolic, says University of Utah law professor RonNell Andersen Jones.

“The sheriff’s office officials likely already took an oath to uphold the Constitution, including all of the Bill of Rights,” she said, “and the Constitution already binds them not to violate the rights of the citizens.”

The policy directs county law enforcement personnel to ignore any presidential order regarding guns that has not been approved by Congress or the Utah Legislature. They’re also blocked from cooperating with any federal, state or other enforcement agency on a presidential order that has been approved by Congress. It applies to executive orders from the governor or other leaders, as well as a change in policy by federal agencies.

Sheriff Kelly Sparks did not identify the genesis of the policy, citing a “general level of concern” from the public that the Second Amendment was under attack.

“I don’t think we’re dealing with an imminent threat,” he said. “We felt it was important for us to be a little proactive. This is an issue that’s on the minds of a lot of people.”

In April, President Joe Biden unveiled a half-dozen executive actions he said would combat an epidemic of gun violence in America. They include directing federal agencies to crack down on so-called “ghost guns,” which are untraceable, and a move to tighten regulations on stabilizing braces that can make handguns more lethal.

Sparks said his motivations for the new policy are not political.

“I would not say it started with Biden,” he said. “There’s just a worry about a potential infringement of gun rights we wanted to get out in front of.”

The new policy comes after Sparks issued a letter in April vowing to uphold the Second Amendment rights of Utahns.

County Attorney Troy Rawlings expressed his “unequivocal support” for the policy.

“Our office has reviewed the policy. We feel it reaches the right balance,” Rawlings said. “Whenever you have a policy that both secures public safety and constitutional rights at the same time, it’s the right policy and the right way to go.”

Rawlings says any law passed by congress or the Utah Legislature would be considered valid unless a court were to rule otherwise. The issue of executive orders from the president is a little bit murkier.

“According to the Supreme Court, an executive order signed by the president is presumed to be valid when the president has the direct or implied authorization from Congress to act,” he said. “It’s somewhat weaker when there is uncertainty as to which branch can act with respect to an issue.”

Commissioners heaped praise on the new policy as they voted unanimously in support Tuesday.

“Some people say we don’t need firearms anymore,” Commissioner Randy Elliott said. “I am not one of those. I think the citizens need to have the right to bear arms and be able to have those arms just in case.”

Commission Chair Bob Stevenson said some may call for more restrictions on guns after the recent rash of mass shootings, but he felt that was the wrong response.

“I do not believe these mass shootings are being caused because somebody owns a gun. Guns do not shoot themselves,” he said. “We will never resolve that problem until we resolve the mental illness situation we have in this country.”

The Utah Legislature passed a pair of resolutions in May in support of declaring the state a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” but those do not carry the force of law.

“The county and its sheriff’s office are totally free to use their enforcement resources however they wish, including making the choice not to enforce various federal provisions,” said Jones, the law professor. “The federal government may still enforce those provisions, though. They remain on the books and still bind the citizens of Davis County.”

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