Ignoring laws

On important issues, a giant can of worms

Democratic state legislators surely knew that by passing gun-control laws, they were setting up an impassioned conflict in the conservative rural areas where guns are a part of everyday life.

Now that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed three such bills - universal background checks, a requirement that applicants pay for those background checks, and a ban on larger-capacity magazines - the conflict has arrived, and a whole lot of Coloradans are caught in the middle.

Sheriffs say the new laws aren't enforceable in any meaningful way and they aren't going to try, which is an interesting statement about the power they do or don't have. Gun supporters already are working toward changing the composition of the General Assembly in 2014 (and continuing the pendulum swing). The latter is the way our political system works.

Everyone in Colorado is required by various forces to comply with the laws of the state, on many issues besides guns. They may not believe in private property rights. They may believe that the speed limit should be 90 instead of 65. They may think they can drive just fine after an evening of drinking. If they're arrested, though, the law on the books is the standard by which they'll be judged.

That enforcement personnel have some latitude in the execution of their duties makes sense. There are only so many officers to go around, and the consequences of breaking some laws are a great deal more severe than the results of breaking others. Lawmakers cannot foresee every situation, especially those that are far from black and white.

The majority of voters in Montezuma County, holding the firm belief that the government shouldn't restrict the right to keep and bear arms, probably are comfortable with the sheriffs' decision not to enforce the new gun laws. They might feel differently about opting out of drug enforcement, about a First Amendment issue - say, polygamy - that might endanger children, or if the majority of the people protesting background checks came from different backgrounds, but right now they're satisfied that the sheriffs' hands-off posture really will result in the most justice.

That may well be true, but representative democracy is not something to abandoned without careful thought.

In this deeply divided state, the Legislature's attempts to address substantive issues always will disappoint large numbers of citizens who hold differing political, philosophical and religious beliefs. Lawlessness cannot be the answer, and selective enforcement on major issues carries its own set of problems, including that it seems much fairer to people who agree with the sheriff's decision than those who agree with lawmakers. Constant recalls won't result in balance; one side or the other always will "win."

Regardless of how one feels about the new gun laws, they were created following the procedures outlined in the state constitution: debated and approved by duly elected representatives in both houses of the Legislature and signed by the governor. They were well-intentioned, if poorly conceived, attempts to address a real problem. Of course they'll turn out to be ineffective. The absence of arrests and prosecutions will render that prophecy self fulfilling. That's the circular point being made by those who insist that current gun also laws don't work.

Under those circumstances, democracy won't work either. If the system is as broken as many Coloradans believe, fix it constructively. Ignoring unpopular laws cannot be the only, or last, step taken.