TWO county sheriffs in Colorado, a state at the heart of America’s fiery gun control debate, have sparked anger by announcing their refusal to enforce controversial new laws passed by legislators at the weekend.
Expanded background checks on those who want to buy weapons and a 15-round restriction on ammunition purchases were at the heart of the rules approved in Colorado, scene of last year’s Aurora cinema shootings and the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
The measures – which are expected to be signed by governor John Hickenhooper, a Democrat, soon and become law on 1 July – drew opposition from Republican lawmakers and caused heated debate.
Now John Cooke, the Weld County sheriff, has joined Terry Maketa, his counterpart in El Paso, in declaring that he “won’t bother” enforcing the laws.
The stance by the two Republicans, and others in the 62 members of the County Sheriffs of Colorado association, has angered Democrats.
Mr Cooke said: “They’re feel-good, knee-jerk reactions that are unenforceable. They give a false sense of security. Criminals are still going to get their guns.”
Mr Maketa, who has been loudly critical as the proposals worked through the Colorado legislature, earlier accused the state’s Democratic leadership of blackmail by threatening to withhold a bill approving pay rises for county sheriffs in response to their opposition.
John Morse, president of the Colorado Senate, called the allegation “blatantly false.”
The sheriffs’ group is standing by a statement that said its members “welcome this dialogue”, but insists that the tragedies in Aurora, and December’s shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 26 people, including 20 children, should not be used “as the backdrop to advance gun control legislation”.
After Sandy Hook, president Barack Obama said reform of gun control laws would be one of the main policy targets of his second term in office.
Vice-president Joe Biden also weighed in after Friday’s Colorado vote. He tweeted: “Congrats to Colorado House and Senate for passing universal background checks.” A second post read: “The families of Aurora deserved a vote and got one. Now US Congress must act too.”
The expansion of background checks and ammunition purchase restrictions were the most controversial of the five Colorado measures, which included a bill to keep guns away from those convicted of domestic violence and a rule requiring anyone seeking a concealed weapons permit to take training in person, rather than online.
The laws follow similar restrictions approved by the New York legislature earlier this year, but are significant because Colorado, which has a long history of gun ownership dating back to the frontier period, is the first western state and the first not traditionally Democrat state, to act since Sandy Hook.
At a hearing at the state capitol, Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman critically injured in a 2011 shooting in Tucson, said 80 per cent of the state’s citizens were in favour of background checks.
He said: “When dangerous people get guns we are all vulnerable, at church, conducting our daily business, and time after time, at schools and in classes.”
But Mr Maketa, in a heated public debate on the eve of the vote, insisted the measures were worthless and that if they came into effect, he and his fellow sheriffs would ignore them.
He said it would be impossible for sheriff departments to keep track of everybody who owned a weapon – and added he would destroy his county’s database of concealed weapons permit holders rather than share it.