Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett’s open letter to citizens of Washington County in response to public inquiry regarding his position on gun control and Second Amendment rights (Jan. 25 Hillsboro Tribune) makes one wonder who was our sheriff’s audience: concerned parents worried about their children’s safety or those who claim an unfettered right to any gun in the market’s arsenal.

I’m bothered that Sheriff Garrett has joined other sheriffs in Oregon proclaiming that “I will not enforce federal law that will infringe upon” Second Amendment rights.  What part of the president’s agenda on guns does Garrett object to?

Requiring background checks for all gun sales?

Strengthening background checks for gun sales?

Passing a stronger ban on assault weapons?

Limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds?

Getting armor-piercing bullets off the streets?

Bolstering law enforcement tools to prevent/prosecute gun crime?

Ending the freeze on gun-violence research?

Making schools safer?

Ensuring quality mental health treatment?

Garrett doesn’t answer this question while entering into a highly politicized debate.

He should focus on enforcing the laws on the books instead of speculating the “whats” and “ifs” in the gun control debate. Law enforcement’s mission is to protect and defend, not dive into an ideological debate over guns.

Sheriff Garrett is a reasonable and fair person with whom I have worked on the county’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and by supporting county public safety levies.

Sheriffs are not judge and jury but “elected” administrators. Garrett won election in May 2012.  I voted for him to be a good public administrator, not a de facto legislator.

So why send what appears to be a coded message to NRA supporters that he’s their man?

When Sheriff Garrett concludes his rather convoluted letter by saying he does not “support action that would prevent law-abiding Washington County citizens from possessing certain firearms or ammo magazines,” what is he implying? 

If Congress or the Oregon legislature passes laws banning the sale of assault weapons or ammo magazines above 10 rounds, will he enforce such laws? 

He correctly notes that’s not his prerogative. That power lies with the courts. 

I’m pleased our sheriff supports background checks, safe schools and adding capacity to mental health services. 

But his words are vague enough to make it unclear what part of the Obama plan he supports, if any.

Sheriff Garrett acknowledges he doesn’t get to interpret the law. But just for argument sake, let’s say the president’s’ agenda is passed in its entirely (not likely, I know). What parts will he enforce or ignore until the courts step in?

I’m old enough to remember the Civil Rights Revolution and how many southern sheriffs were on the wrong side of history claiming a right to cherry pick what laws they would or would not enforce.

I also remember Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail where he made the distinction between “moral law” and “unjust law.”  But King, true to his belief in non-violence did not take the law into his hands. Rather, he submitted to arrest time and time again to protest “unjust” laws while affirming the sanctity of “the law.” 

I trust Sheriff Garrett has a similar commitment.  If at some point he decides he cannot enforce a duly passed federal law, I assume he will “stand down” out of respect to the supremacy clause of the Constitution and allow federal marshals to enforce such laws while we wait for the courts to decide the issue. 

As Garrett says, he’s bound to uphold the law whether he personally agrees with it or not. He can share his opinion with members of Congress. But using his title and office to throw matches onto a burning fire of controversy is beyond his job description.

Sheriff Garrett should stay out of the political thicket by resisting the temptation to pontificate on the law that he took an oath to uphold. 

His duty is to keep residents of Washington County safe. Having his department work 24/7 to prevent another Newtown is a good start.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at

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