Since being elected and taking over the duties and responsibilities of sheriff, I am humbled more than I ever thought possible as I experience the highs and lows of serving in such a diverse position. Every year, Americans encounter new challenges, both personal and professional, that consume our time, energy and redirect our focus. This is no different for the position in which I serve you.
Early this year, I was inundated with emails and phone calls from citizens concerned about new legislative bills being introduced at the state Capitol regarding gun control. Hearts break and thoughts and prayers go out to the families and victims of the recent horrific incidents around our nation, which seem to be the center of this gun control debate. But to many citizens, these bills are viewed as an intrusion on the Second Amendment and will do little to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill. I was asked to become familiar with these bills and to get involved as an expert witness during these legislative debates by many Routt County citizens as well as the County Sheriffs of Colorado organization.
A common topic during these conversations was a reminder that the sheriff is a position of trust supported by an oath of office, an elected servant chosen by the people and an individual they expect to stand firm to protect their freedoms and rights. I have taken several oaths of office during my career as a law enforcement officer and I always have taken my oath seriously. I understand that the promise of keeping an oath or keeping your word is a true testament to a person’s honor and integrity. It is also a reality that individuals serving in elected or appointed positions will often need to make decisions and take positions on political topics that will result in applause and praise from some and anger and hate from others. Personally, I experienced both support and discontent as a result of my involvement and position regarding these bills. One fact that remains true and is something I must live with is that no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to please everyone all the time.
The new proposed gun bills created constitutional concerns with citizens and additional concerns for law enforcement officials over the possibility of negative impacts on law enforcement resources. By their nature, I was already familiar with the bills being discussed because of the direct correlation to law enforcement. As requested, I and many other Colorado sheriffs became more involved in these proceedings. Many Colorado sheriffs spent several days at the Capitol speaking to legislative committees discussing both the positive and negative aspects of these bills. It was during these discussions that we all realized early input from law enforcement did not occur in the initial drafting period of these bills. This fact was brought to light only when testimony from law enforcement officials articulated and pointed out the many legal issues and complications with the bills’ content. The end result was the passage of several highly confrontational and debatable bills signed into law.
The signing of these bills into law did not put an end to the debate. Multiple lawsuits are being filed by many facets of the private and public sector. Some lawsuits are based on the belief that these laws violate several amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the Second and Fourteenth amendments and the possibility of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
One of the many lawsuits is being filed by attorney Dave Kopel, research director for the Independence Institute, on behalf of 54 Colorado sheriffs. Attorney Kopel has agreed to represent all the county sheriffs pro bono, meaning at no cost or risk to the sheriffs or the counties they represent.
The participating sheriffs agree that legal action is a necessity because the new laws are extremely problematic with regard to their enforceability and could pose a drain on already stressed resources. The new laws are perceived as being very poorly written with so much ambiguity that a clear understanding of the laws by citizens and law enforcement personnel could be inconsistently interpreted from agency to agency, resulting in law-abiding citizens being unduly arrested. In addition, sheriffs are being encouraged by many of the citizens they serve to file suit based on the belief that the new laws violate constitutional law. The relief sought if the sheriffs prevail is an injunction against the enforcement of HB 1224 and HB 1229. If judgment is decided in favor of the defendant, then our desire is to establish clear, articulate direction in regard to enforcement.
Regardless of the outcome, the sheriffs feel we have represented all of our citizens to the best of our ability. A court ruling will provide direction and clarity to all Colorado citizens, law enforcement personnel and hopefully put an end to this debate.
From a personal and professional standpoint, I feel I need to be honest and transparent with all Routt County citizens in explaining my decision to be included in the lawsuit. When conversations first began about taking legal action against the state, the extent of risk was unknown, as was the basis of the suit that would be filed. Because of the initial unknown variables, I chose to remain neutral and not engage in legal action.
After weeks of deliberation and discussing the details with attorneys, law enforcement officials and local business owners, coupled with the overwhelming encouragement from citizens on both sides of the issue, I changed my position and agree that pursuing clarification through this avenue would benefit everyone. This option is viewed by most as a win-win action regardless of personal opinion or belief, and a court ruling should give closure once and for all.
I have always had an open door policy and I encourage anyone who has questions or comments to contact me for a one-on-one discussion. My preference is a personal, face-to-face discussion, but I realize everyone is as busy as I am, so emails or phone calls are fine, too.
Garrett Wiggins is the sheriff of Routt County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-870-5501.