Sheriff Grayson Robinson
By Peter Jones
All but 10 of Colorado’s 64 sheriffs – including Arapahoe County’s Grayson Robinson – have signed onto a federal civil-rights lawsuit that challenges state gun restrictions passed this year in the wake of several mass shootings.
Last week, many of those elected sheriffs announced their intentions during a press conference at the offices of the Independence Institute, a right-leaning Denver-based think tank whose attorney is leading the sheriffs’ legal challenge.
At issue are two bills passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed into law this spring by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Both go into effect July 1. The laws limit the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and extend background checks to most private sales, closing the so-called “gun show loophole.”
According to the sheriffs’ complaint, the laws violate the second and fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The lawsuit further says the bills “are utterly unenforceable, even if the sheriffs wished to violate the U.S. Constitution.”
The May 17 court filing followed recent announcements by several sheriffs who said they would decidedly not enforce the new gun laws for similar reasons.
Although Robinson, a Republican, has signed his name to the lawsuit, he is not necessarily in lockstep with his fellow sheriffs. In January, Robinson wrote an open letter to constituents, published in The Villager, pledging his responsibility to enforce all laws, whether he agrees with them or not.
“Public-safety professionals serving in the executive branch do not have the constitutional authority, responsibility, and in most cases, the credentials to determine the constitutionality of any issue,” the sheriff wrote, noting that the Constitution assigns interpretive responsibility to the judicial branch.
While Robinson agrees with the lawsuit’s arguments about the enforceability of the magazine-round limits, he says the constitutional question must be left to judges. As for the background checks, the sheriff supports them and disagrees with that part of the legal argument.
Robinson’s nuanced views are symbolic of a larger disagreement within the law enforcement community. While most of the state’s elected sheriffs oppose the new laws, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police supports them, calling the two measures “common-sense approaches” to protect the public.
The Villager recently asked Robinson, who was out of town and did not attend the press conference, to expand on his own positions.
Villager: You disagree with 50 percent of this lawsuit, but you support it.
Robinson: I supported the general background checks for the key purpose of identifying someone who has mental-health issues, a restraining order, alcohol or drug abuse – I don’t want them armed. But the high-capacity magazine [restriction] is a problem. Even the governor at several points in the process admitted that this was probably an unenforceable law. I would have preferred that [the two issues] were separated [in the lawsuit], but that wasn’t possible.
If I were in town, I would not have gone to the press conference because I don’t believe this should become a media event. I think this should go through the process the founders established and find out what the judicial branch says about the efforts of the legislative branch.
Villager: Given your mixed views, was it a given that you would support the lawsuit?
Robinson: It’s certainly something that was on mind when I contemplated whether I would allow my name to be included. I was involved in some pretty significant debate with some of my colleague sheriffs. Certainly, if I’m called to testify, I’ll make it clear I support the lion’s share of the background-check piece. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision and it wasn’t something I entered into lightly.
Villager: Your point is more about the enforceability of the magazine restriction than its constitutionality?
Robinson: I’m not qualified to say whether it or isn’t constitutional. That’s the responsibility of the judiciary.
Villager: Do you believe that restriction, given its perceived unenforceability, places an undue burden on sheriffs?
Robinson: Let’s say Person A has a problem with Person B and they bring forward a complaint that Person B purchased a high-capacity magazine in July. It becomes our responsibility then to investigate whether that high-capacity magazine was purchased on June 30 or July 1. I think that’s going to be nearly impossible to determine. Three years from now, someone can say, “I bought it on June 30 of 2013 and I simply don’t keep my receipts.” The other part is, with minor modifications most magazines that are below 15 rounds, extenders can be put in them with little or no effort and they become high-capacity magazines.
Villager: Many have assumed that the law-enforcement community largely supports increased gun control, if for no other reason than for the personal stake police have in their own protection. Has that changed?
Robinson: Police chiefs had a general perspective of supporting gun control, but I think that was more from the administrative levels, whereas in the rank and file the people are all over the chart. In sheriff’s offices, it’s a little bit the opposite. The gun issue has become extraordinarily divisive between the sheriffs and the police chiefs. A little bit of it has to do with the autonomy of the sheriff’s office.
Villager: In any case, we can conclude that the vast majority of sheriffs in Colorado believe no substantial new gun control is needed or appropriate.
Robinson: That’s probably an accurate statement. I would much rather have seen the energy and time that went into the high-capacity magazines be placed where I think it would have made more difference in the long run, and that was on mental-health issues, and some prohibitions on firearms possession by those that suffer mental health, alcohol, drug or a co-occurring disorder. At the end of the session, there was some work that was done, but the lion’s share of it was put into creating task forces for future reference rather than immediate action.
Almost every time you report an incident of gun violence, someone’s saying we knew for months this person was mentally ill. In the time I have left in this office and then whatever the next adventure is, that will continue to be a passion and I will continue to be as loud and aggressive of a voice as I can be.
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