Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s declaration that he is not going to uphold a law he doesn’t like is as reckless as it is bold.
Even for a sheriff running for re-election, his statement that he will not enforce New York’s new gun control law is shocking. His duty is to uphold the laws of the United States and of New York. Even if he doesn’t happen to agree with all of those laws.
You wouldn’t know about that sworn duty just by listening to Howard these days as he scoffs at the legality of the SAFE Act, and passes the buck to the district attorney to enforce the law.
Howard’s not alone in opposing the law spurred by the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That awful massacre of 20 small children and six adults riveted a nation and emboldened political leaders to push for gun control.
On a national level, President Obama, even with the tearful and gut-wrenching images of mothers pleading for change, couldn’t move real reform through the Senate. There was too much political peril from the conservative base of a minority of senators.
It was different in New York, thanks to aggressive work by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. While he was able to push the SAFE Act through the State Legislature, resistance was inevitable. But that it has come from law enforcement officers is frustrating, and wrong.
Howard is only one of four sheriffs who joined in filing a friend of the court brief in the lawsuit seeking to overturn the SAFE Act. He is free to do that, but he is not free to be the one deciding which laws he will enforce.
As reported, Howard considers the law passed in January unconstitutional and a waste of valuable resources. Besides, he firmly believes it will ultimately be overturned by the courts. But instead of waiting for that decision, he is taking on the role of judge.
The sheriff can justify his stance by saying that his views on the law’s enforcement are his own and that he has not encouraged or discouraged his deputies to follow suit, but a leader sets the tone. How many of his deputies are likely to defy their boss and the culture of resistance on this particular law?
Even more aggravating is Howard’s shifting of responsibility over to the district attorney. Yes, the DA has the ability to charge people with SAFE Act violations even if Howard and his deputies disagree on the law, but it is not the DA’s job to go out and police the streets. Excuse the pun, but that’s a copout.
As Cuomo said, the sheriff’s opposition to the SAFE Act has as much to do with politics as constitutional law. Howard, a Republican, is facing a tough challenge this fall and it doesn’t hurt to try to appeal to a base of voters who believe that the government is infringing on their own constitutional rights and, they believe, trying to take away their guns.
Whether or not Howard believes that the law is both illegal and impractical, he cannot cherry pick which laws he’s going to enforce.