Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith speaks to a crowd earlier this year while sheriffs from across the state gathered to speak against Colorado's new gun-control measures. / Associated Press file photo
Smith made multiple trips to Denver to oppose restrictive state gun measures but hasn't sought county reimbursement for expenses incurred.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith reached into his own wallet to cover expenses incurred while he lobbied against Colorado’s new gun restrictions earlier this year.
Inspection of his county-issued credit card spending records and reimbursements showed that Smith bought no meals and accepted no repayment for costs associated with his many trips to Denver to oppose new gun laws debated in the Legislature.
Smith said he traveled in his county sheriff’s cruiser and paid for meals out of his own pocket, although he said if other sheriffs who united to lobby against the gun legislation claimed costs it would have been justified.
It’s not unusual for Smith to absorb small costs associated with doing his job, he said. And he and other sheriffs expected great scrutiny of their practices from gun-law proponents, so he was careful not to run up a tab at taxpayer expense while taking a stand at the state Capitol.
“We knew as sheriffs — I knew personally — it would go to personal attacks,” Smith said. “It would be a bit naive to think that the opposition is not going to attack you.”
State Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, supported the gun legislation that Smith opposed. He said the sheriff did the right thing by sparing the county the costs associated with his lobbying effort.
“I think that’s totally appropriate,” Fischer said. “It would not have been appropriate to bill the county while lobbying on an issue at the state Capitol. I think he followed the rules of good governance.”
Smith said he hasn’t kept track of how much he’s spent during the campaign against new gun laws, and he does not plan to claim those costs as job-related expenses on his taxes.
“I don’t track that stuff. I wouldn’t even have a number,” Smith said. “I’m not somebody that donates my underwear to Goodwill and writes it off.”
He’s not certain how many trips out of town he took to fight the gun laws, considering that the topic tends to come up almost everywhere he goes.
“For gun control advocates, one (trip) was too many,” he said. “For people who stand up for civil rights, the trips I took were not enough.”
Smith acknowledged that he accepted his salary for the time spent lobbying and used a county vehicle to travel to and from legislative hearings, but he contends that he’s on duty and being paid for service around the clock anyway.
Smith, a Republican, and other sheriffs from both parties beat back some proposals by the Democratically controlled Legislature. But a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and universal background checks on gun transfers passed and were signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.
Now Smith and more than 50 other sheriffs are suing the governor in an attempt to squelch the new laws.
In Smith’s mind, sheriffs haven’t overstepped their elected roles by interjecting themselves so deeply into the conversation, because, he said, he has an obligation to defend the U.S. Constitution, and constituents who share his belief that the gun legislation infringes on Second Amendment rights pushed him and other sheriffs into action.
“This is one where all heads turned to us (sheriffs),” he said. “This is our Alamo. We feel obligated. (Citizens) felt like a lot of other elected officials had abandoned them.”
Although he stands on the opposite side of the gun debate from the sheriff, Fischer said Smith is entitled to fight for his principles before the Legislature, and that sheriffs are not overstepping their elected duties to insert themselves into the gun debate.
“As elected officials, they don’t have to check their opinions at the door when they take office,” Fischer said. “I know that Sheriff Smith is committed to trying to make his views known on this. I can’t fault him for that. We obviously have a disagreement on the issue, but I can’t really criticize him for getting involved in it. As long as he’s upholding his duties as sheriff, it’s appropriate for him to voice his opinions.”
Colorado sheriffs are girding against even more restrictive gun laws that they expect will be considered in the state soon. Smith points to California as an example of what he anticipates on the horizon here.
The California Legislature is considering measures that would require registration of assault weapons by people who own them legally, restrict purchases of ammunition and expand the categories that disqualify citizens from gun ownership to include certain misdemeanor convictions, among other legislation.
“We were told by the proponents of the gun-control measures that we were blowing something up, that all they want is that little bit,” the sheriff said. “But look at California. Nobody with a straight face could say that’s not what’s going to be pushed here next.”
Fischer said he has no plans to introduce further firearm legislation, and he is unaware of any that is planned.
“But we oftentimes don’t know that until the (legislative) session starts,” he said.
Smith is adamant that he would protect the First Amendment or any other constitutional right as ardently as he has the second.
“If we don’t,” he said, “why should anybody have any faith in their sheriffs?”