Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario plans to persist in a lawsuit aimed at overturning new statewide gun control measures, even after a federal judge ruled last week that he and 54 other Colorado sheriffs don’t have the standing to argue that the laws would make their duties as police officers more difficult.
“We can no longer argue that these changes harm us in our official capacity, we can only argue as individuals,” Vallario told the Garfield County commissioners on Monday, signaling that he would remain a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Gov. John Hickenlooper to defend his personal constitutional rights.
The sheriffs’ lawsuit was filed in May, shortly after Hickenlooper signed two gun control bills. One mandates criminal background checks for all retail and private gun transactions, where some private sales could take place without the checks prior to the law. The other
limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds each. The laws took effect July 1.
Vallario and his fellow sheriffs were joined in the suit by several sportsmen’s groups and gun rights organizations, who argued that the laws infringed on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms and were too vague and confusing to enforce.
Their suit was dealt a blow last week when U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the sheriffs couldn’t sue the state government over an alleged violation of the U.S. Constitution. The judge also ruled that the sheriffs had failed to show how they would be prosecuted or otherwise concretely injured by the new gun control laws.
“To establish standing, a plaintiff must show that he or she has suffered an ‘injury in fact’ that is concrete and particularized… (not merely conjectural or hypothetical),” Krieger wrote. Still, the judge emphasized that the sheriffs could persist as private citizens in the lawsuit if they chose.
On Tuesday, Vallario pledged to stay on, and said he’d even consider spending his own money on incidental expenses arising from the lawsuit if necessary. So far, many of the legal costs associated with the suit have been borne by the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Golden. Vallario maintained that he hasn’t spent taxpayer money on the suit.
Vallario said he’d continue fighting because he believes that mandatory background checks punish law-abiding citizens rather than criminals, and harm his deputies’ ability to do their jobs.
Even though police officers are exempted from the high capacity magazine limit under the law, Vallario maintained that his deputies who carry high capacity magazines could be subjected to additional background checks, as could any employee who oversees an evidence locker full of firearms.
“By the letter of the law, anytime I issue a gun to a deputy with a magazine greater than 15 rounds, I have to do a background check,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Vallario did acknowledge, however, that all of his officers are already subjected to background checks when they’re hired at the sheriff’s office, and may not be subject to additional screening under the law. Still, he reiterated his oft-repeated claim that criminals would find a way around the measure.
“CRIMINALS ARE NOT GOING TO STAND IN LINE FOR A BACKGROUND CHECK KNOWING THAT THEY WILL BE DENIED,” Vallario wrote in an e-mail (emphasis his). “THEY WILL GET WHAT THEY WANT ILLEGALLY.”
Yet statistics maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show that through October, just over 6,160 people have been blocked from buying a gun this year after background checks turned up a criminal history. Of those, 1,186 had an arrest or conviction on an assault charge on their record; another 889 people had been denied because of a “dangerous drug” arrest or conviction; burglary and larceny arrests or convictions were the next most common reasons that the state blocked gun purchases.
Overall, less than 2 percent of Colorado gun buyers have been prevented from purchasing guns after background checks this year, and last year, before the law took effect, the percentage was slightly higher. Still, statistics show that there were 236 arrests made in Colorado last year after people with warrants out for their arrests submitted to a background check while attempting to purchase a gun.
Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s press secretary, cited the CBI numbers in defending the utility of universal background checks.
“Some criminals won’t follow the law,” Brown wrote in an email. “But clearly some do when trying to purchase a weapon.”
Background checks aside, Vallario said that the high capacity magazine law would infringe upon both his personal Second Amendment rights and his deputies’ ability to protect the public.
Every Garfield County sheriff’s deputy carries a privately owned handgun, Vallario said, to insure that they’ll be comfortable enough to use the weapon in the line of duty.
Many of the guns owned by his deputies, Vallario said, have ammunition magazines that carry more than 15 rounds, and the new law prevents those deputies from obtaining replacement magazines from any gun store within Colorado.
“I had a deputy that I moved from the jail to patrol duty, he had a gun with a 17-round magazine to adequately arm himself,” Vallario said. “He went to 11 different supply stores across the state, but ultimately he had to find a buddy in Texas to ship [new magazines] to him in the mail.”
Vallario said he hadn’t yet tried to purchase high capacity ammunition magazines from out-of-state suppliers through official channels at the sheriff’s office, but he said several of his counterparts across the state have reported difficulty in sourcing such magazines.
Nevertheless, Brown in Gov. Hickenlooper’s office defended the high capacity magazine limits, arguing that they could give victims a chance to overcome a shooter or escape when the shooter was forced to reload.
“The law creates the possibility that a person determined to kill people might be slowed down even for an instant,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “That instant might mean the difference between life and death for some people.”
And some law enforcement officers maintain that they don’t need high capacity magazines to do their jobs. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said that none of the handguns or rifles used by his deputies carry more than 15 bullets at a time.
DiSalvo is one of seven sheriffs throughout the state who declined to sign on to the lawsuit seeking to overturn the new gun laws. Fifty-five other sheriffs opted to join the legal action.
“Primarily, from what I hear from the 16,000 or so people that I represent is that they support the governor’s stance on gun control,” DiSalvo said. “And I happen to feel the same way as my constituents do.”
Since the new gun laws passed last spring, DiSalvo said he hadn’t heard from a single Pitkin County resident asking him to sign on to the sheriffs’ lawsuit.
“I’ve had overwhelming support from our citizens,” he said, noting that he respected other sheriffs’ rights to fight the new laws. “Lou Vallario is representing his people, just as I’m representing mine,” he said.
Just 40 miles down the road from DiSalvo — and a political world away — Vallario said he’d be involved in the lawsuit for the long haul, even if it winds its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When you are talking about something as important as one of our 10 original constitutional rights, I think maybe the Supreme Court is the proper venue to resolve this,” Vallario said.