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Sheriff's offices in Illinois defy new assault weapons ban: 'We are the keeper of our jails'

Whiteside County Sheriff John Booker told News 8 he believes mental health needs more focus than guns do when it comes to gun violence in the state.

WHITESIDE COUNTY, Ill. — Dozens of county sheriffs in Illinois — approximately “80-ish,” per Illinois Sheriffs’ Association head Jim Kaitschuck — say they’ll refuse to enforce a provision of a new assault weapons ban that would require owners of such guns to register them with the state.

That includes around the Quad Cities, where the sheriffs of Whiteside, Knox and Henry counties have announced their intent to not enforce the new law. The statements from those offices were drafted with the Illinois Sheriff's Association.

Whiteside County Sheriff John Booker told News 8's Cesar Sanchez that he won't be checking on gun owners to see if their weapons have been registered with the state.

"A lot of people are saying we can't pick and choose, and we have to follow the law," Booker said on Thursday. "But people don't understand, as the sheriff, we are the keeper of our jails. We do have a say [in] who comes in and out of our jails."

Booker said he believes federal law overrules the new state law, which means he believes the law is unconstitutional. 

"It goes after the law-abiding citizen," Booker said. "It's what we're upset about."

Democrats and advocates who pushed for Illinois to pass the nation’s ninth statewide ban on assault weapons had expected litigation, but on Thursday maintained that unless the law gets struck down, sheriffs’ refusal to enforce any part of it is a dereliction of duty.

“They took an oath of office to uphold the law,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference. “As law enforcement, that’s their job. And I expect them to do that job. You can have all the resolutions and declarations that you want (but) the reality is that the laws that are on the books, you don’t get to choose which ones people are going to follow.”

But Kaitschuck countered with the common example of police declining to write a ticket to a driver pulled over for driving 10 miles over the speed limit.

“If I pull somebody over for speeding going 65 in a 55, and I don’t write them a ticket, does that mean I’m not enforcing (the law)?” he aked. “And I know we’re talking apples to oranges here, but…my point on this is that officers have discretion. We don’t arrest everybody we could or else our jails would be totally overrun.”

"There's no sheriff that supports violent crimes, this isn't what we're saying," Booker said. "We're just saying going after law-abiding citizens isn't the way it needs to be done."

Booker emphasized that the issue isn't with guns, but with how the state handles mental health issues. He said he believes crime happens because perpetrators have poor mental health. 

"You can lay a gun on the table, it doesn't hurt anyone," said Booker. "It's the person that has to pick it up and shoot somebody." 

The sheriffs’ letters this week primarily dealt with enforcing the registry portion of the assault weapons law, and Kaitschuck said he wasn’t aware of any sheriffs in his organization who don’t plan on complying with the law’s other provisions, like the ban of sales of assault weapons at Illinois gun shops.

However, Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Harold Krent argued the sheriffs’ letters go beyond what was explicitly stated and said the symbolism of law enforcement officers refusing to comply with state law is a slippery slope.

Krent contrasted the sheriffs’ move with state’s attorneys’ actions surrounding the cashless bail provision of Illinois’ SAFE-T Act, which was supposed to do away with cash bond in Illinois on Jan. 1. Despite grumbling from dozens of state’s attorneys in Illinois, even the staunchest opponents to the law were at least somewhat prepared to comply with it in the new year, at least until the Illinois Supreme Court stayed the law on Dec. 31, pending a full appeal.

“There, (the state’s attorneys) went to court and said, ‘We’re not going to block the process but we want a judicial resolution.’ That’s a norm in our country,” Krent said. “...The General Assembly has decided (the assault weapons ban is) constitutional. The attorney general has decided it’s constitutional. I think it’s an incredible risk for sheriffs to say, ‘We’re not going to enforce a law.’ …because that’s encouraging a lack of respect for the law.”

News 8 also reached out to Rock Island County Sheriff Darren Hart and State's Attorney Dora Villarreal for their comments on Thursday but has yet to hear back.

Watch more stories about the assault weapons ban on News 8's YouTube channel

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