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September 14, 2013

Sheriffs can't pick which laws to enforce

When Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond was elected, no reasonable voter expected him to abstain from having opinions about the laws passed by our state Legislature. And if Desmond has a problem with the NY SAFE Act and its restrictions on firearms, as a citizen he has every right to urge lawmakers to repeal it.

But the oath of office Desmond took was pretty clear about his obligation to enforce the law. And by vowing last week to ignore the new gun law’s provisions, Desmond is undermining New York state’s democratic process.

Desmond’s comments were in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the law’s champion, who said last week “it’s not really up to law enforcement to pick and choose what laws they like and what laws they don’t like.”

The SAFE Act’s critics contend that the law is unconstitutional. But that isn’t determined in the court of public opinion, and a lawsuit making that argument was thrown out by a state Appellate Court in July. The law’s opponents’ best remaining option appears to be persuading lawmakers to vote for its repeal.

The lead plaintiff in the July lawsuit was Robert Schulz, who argued that the law’s passage under a so-called message of necessity by the governor — which waives the usual three-day waiting period for votes — was illegal. But the court ruled that hastening the vote wasn’t illegal, and that nobody was forced to vote for the bill’s passage. Indeed, the law’s critics rarely acknowledge the broad margin by which the SAFE Act passed in both the state Assembly (104 yea, 43 nay) and Senate (43 yea, 18 nay).

Those sheriffs who refuse to enforce it often defend their stance by saying they’re just upholding the wishes of their constituents. But what about those constituents who don’t have a problem with the SAFE Act? Polls have indicated that they’re in the majority across New York; 61 percent of respondents to a Siena poll in March supported the law, while a Quinnipiac poll in April had the law’s approval at 63 percent. Are these New Yorkers any less entitled to impartial enforcement of their laws than those who happen to share Desmond’s stance on guns?

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