Sheriffs back off threat

Nevada county sheriffs have signed a letter promising to enforce the state’s background check law.

The letter, signed by all 17 sheriffs, has been posted on the website of the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association, their lobbying arm.

Though couched in boilerplate verbiage supporting the Second Amendment, the letter still pledges, “The sheriffs of the State of Nevada are here to enforce the laws and uphold the constitutions of this state and this country. We will do so with all persons, while still protecting our Second Amendment freedoms.”

The background check law was enacted by the Nevada Legislature in February to replace a similar law approved by Nevadans in 2014. That voter-approved measure could not be implemented because of flaws in the drafting of the initiative petition.

The sheriffs’ pledge came as a relief to state officials, who have been planning how to deal in January with recalcitrant sheriffs refusing to enforce the law. That is what many of the rural sheriffs had, earlier this year, said they would do.

It appears that Eureka County Sheriff Jesse Watts was the first off the mark with the threat, in a Feb. 19 letter to Gov. Steve Sisolak: “You signing this into law does nothing but make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to transfer ownership of weapons. In summary, it is the position of this sheriff that I refuse to participate, or stand idly by, while my citizens are turned into criminals due to the unconstitutional actions of misguided politicians.”

No court has held the law unconstitutional. In fact, no court challenge has been launched against it.

However, in 1997’s Printz vs. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the federal law known as the Brady Bill, which directed sheriffs to conduct background checks, violated the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

But the Brady Bill and the new Nevada law have different wording. Moreover, while the U.S. government may not be able to commandeer sheriffs to do background checks, states can. The Nevada Constitution allows very little home rule. Counties in Nevada are often called the “creatures of the state.”

In his 2000 study, County Government, Frank Coppa wrote that counties “can be traced to the English shire and first appeared in 1634 in what later became Virginia. Counties are the creatures of the state and operate within the parameters of their state constitution, statutes, and court decisions.”

In his book Nevada Politics & Government: Conservatism in an Open Society, Don Driggs wrote, “The states retained many of their powers under the Constitution, and the federal government cannot unilaterally abolish states or diminish their powers. In contrast, local governments within a state—such as counties, cities, and school districts—are creatures of the state and have only those powers that the state has given them.”

In State ex. rel. Ginoccio v. Shaughnessy, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that counties can be required to perform duties prescribed by the legislature. Sheriffs are county officials.