Lawless sheriffs make news

Two Nevada county sheriffs—Sharon Wehrley of Nye County and Jesse Watts of Eureka—refuse to enforce a new Nevada law. The law, passed in Senate Bill 143, will take effect on Jan. 2.

In her letter to the governor, Wehrly quoted the seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Marbury vs. Madison: “All laws which are repugnant to the Constitution are null and void.” However, nothing in Marbury empowers public officials to disobey laws. It is courts, not elected officials, who decide whether laws are null and void. Meaning that determination is not DIY for Wehrly and Watts.

The Second Amendment does not bar legislators from regulating gun ownership, and background checks have been upheld in other states.

Wehrly further wrote, “History seems to be repeating itself in the United States; in Germany prior to WWII we saw Hitler place restrictions on the public’s right to bear arms, then we stood by and watched him seize the firearms from his citizens, placing them ‘under the protection of the state.”’

This is factually inaccurate. The Nazis in Germany were permissive on gun ownership. Before Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, Germany lived under laws enacted by the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic that required all citizens to turn in their guns to the government and, later, imposed tight registration requirements on gun ownership.

Five years after Hitler came to power, Germany relaxed the restrictions, “completely deregulat[ing] the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition,” according to Columbia University Law School professor Bernard Harcourt, in a law review article he wrote in 2004. The age for gun ownership in Germany was lowered from 20 to 18, and many sectors of society were exempted from gun restrictions. Jews or groups critical of the Nazis were remained under the restrictions.

Nevada elected officials can be removed for failing to perform their duties or for misconduct in office. In May 1927, for instance, Gov. Fred Balzar removed Treasurer Ed Malley and appointed George Russell to replace him when Malley’s bond was withdrawn after he was accused of responsibility for missing state funds. Nevada sheriffs—including two women—have been recalled from office, but we have not found any instance of removal.

Wehrley further wrote, “Our staff is thin, our budgets are limited, and our responsibilities are laced with state mandated unfunded programs; we struggle to enforce the laws that exist. By signing this bill into law does nothing [sic] but make it more difficult for law-abiding citizens to transfer ownership of weapons, place an additional burden on law enforcement, and encourages citizens to ‘turn in’ their family members, neighbors, friends and acquaintances.”

However, a note by the legislature’s fiscal analysts found no fiscal impacts from the new law on local governments, only on state government.