Gun control lawsuit

Judge narrowing case to its fundamentals

Since Democrats in the Colorado Legislature – with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s blessing – took up gun-control measures in the 2013 session, opponents of the effort have deployed a multivariate response that has left two Colorado legislators recalled from their offices, triggered a third to resign and placed the vast majority of Colorado county sheriffs at legal odds with the state. In that last venue – a lawsuit brought by the sheriffs and others alleging that measures limiting magazine size to 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks on all gun purchases violate Second Amendment protections – a judge has winnowed the issues to their core by ruling that the sheriffs lack standing to sue the state en masse. It is an important clarification.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger last week ruled that sheriffs cannot sue as a group, leaving the case open to proceed with its other plaintiffs, which include individuals, gun dealers and manufacturers and organizations such as the Colorado Farm Bureau. While Krieger extended an invitation for individual sheriffs to join the lawsuit, she made a clear distinction about the law enforcers suing as a consortium. “The sheriffs have confused their individual rights and interests with those of the county Sheriff’s Office,” Krieger said. “The statutory provisions under which the (lawsuit’s) claims are asserted protect individual rights, and do not provide rights to political subdivisions.”

That serves as an important reminder of the sheriffs’ collective role in the lawsuit, and, in giving the law-enforcement officers 14 days to decide whether to sign on as individuals, Krieger has effectively prompted them to consider how much political capital each is willing to expend in fighting the new state gun legislation. What results will be of interest to each sheriff’s constituents.

The question of the gun legislation’s Second Amendment muster remains open, though, and Krieger has much to consider there – regardless of who is on the plaintiff list. That discussion and subsequent ruling – expected next year – will quite likely overshadow the state’s political climate in the coming months, and will have important implications for future gun legislation elsewhere in the United States.

The firestorm wrought by opponents to any and all gun legislation has been far-reaching and effective. Krieger’s ruling has hemmed that in somewhat, keeping the conversation focused on the questions at hand: Do the universal background check and 15-round magazine limit run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment? Understanding that for certain requires careful consideration of the measures’ language and its implications. It does not and should not consider the political leanings of a bloc of elected officials charged with enforcing the laws of the land. By separating the sheriffs’ group into the individual parts that comprise it, Krieger has effectively neutralized some of the political undertones of the case. That was a deft and necessary move that will aid in sorting out the merits of the matter.