Trigger warning: Discussion of gun violence and suicide
It’s been almost seven years since the Mukilteo shooting that resulted in the death of three recent Kamiak High School graduates at the hands of a 19-year-old wielding an ArmaLite AR-15. The shooting is the most recent incident where a semi-automatic firearm was used to kill several people in Washington. (The teenager told police he viewed the rifle as a “symbol of power.”)
There have been more than 220 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive which defines a mass shooting by the injury or death of at least four victims, excluding the shooter. A 2019 study found that AR-15-style weapons accounted for more than 85% of fatalities in mass shootings nationwide. The latest mass shooting was May 6 in Allen, Texas, where eight people were killed and seven injured at a shopping center by a shooter using an AR-15.
As of April 25, Washington state prohibits the sale of firearms like the AR-15 with House Bill 1240 and extends the requirement for safety training and a 10-day waiting period before purchasing any firearm with House Bill 1143. Military and law enforcement are exceptions and AR-15-style firearms bought pre-ban remain legal.
Will these new laws prevent a future shooting? Can this ban create a greater sense, or reality, of safety?
By far the highest category of firearms death in Washington, 75%, is suicide, followed by individual homicide at about 20%. Unlike most mass shootings, which tend to be planned, these are often deaths of impulse, most often done with handguns, not with AR-15s, shotguns or rifles. Will training and waiting periods make a difference for other guns?
Sean Job owns Armadillo Arms in Ferndale, a small store tucked into a business center of warehouse modules. Inside, customers are greeted by Job, his fiancée, Denise Thrasher, and their dog, who’s all bark and no bite. Behind the sales counter is a storeroom of firearms and a case displaying Job’s personal semi-automatic/competition-style firearms purchased pre-ban.
There aren’t any other AR-15-style firearms in the store — they were all purchased in anticipation of the ban. But these weapons, valued by some for self-defense and hunting and criticized by others for their capability for mass destruction, have been in our community before the ban. So can this ban create a greater sense of safety in a nation that’s been all too familiar with gun violence?
For many Americans, the threat of mass shootings evokes fear in places that should be considered safe, especially schools.
In November 2022, Bellingham’s Sehome High School received a phone call falsely reporting shots fired inside a classroom, sending the school into lockdown until law enforcement arrived and cleared the school minutes later.
Dana Smith, assistant director of communications for Bellingham Public Schools, began teaching English at Lakewood High School in Snohomish County in 1999, two months before the shooting in Columbine, Colorado.
“It did feel like the world of safety shifted on its axis and we had to figure out how to rebuild a sense of safety at school,” Smith said. “Basically my whole career has been bracketed by the different awareness that we have to pay to school violence and safety.”
Flynn Williams, a first-year elementary education student, hosted an informational vigil on May 12 in Western Washington University’s Red Square to honor student victims of gun-violence nationwide, educate passersby on gun-reform issues and call on the university to divest in the gun industry.
School under the shadow of mass shootings has been the norm for Williams, whose first vivid memory of childhood education was hiding under a desk in third grade with the lights out and blinds closed in lockdown while an armed person ran from police near their elementary school in Oregon.
“We grew up with lockdown drills, we grew up seeing these headlines,” Williams said. “A lot of us were the age of a lot of the (students in these) shootings. We also are a generation that has a lot of friends that are survivors of gun violence.”
Thinking about school shootings “keeps me awake at night,” Williams said. He took action against gun violence by co-founding WWU’s chapter of Students Demand Action and lobbied for passage of HB 1240.
Guns, mental health and suicide
Gun store owners Job and Thrasher believe the ban fails to address the underlying causes of gun violence, such as mental health issues, and unfairly targets responsible gun owners instead of criminals, in efforts to end gun violence.
“The people that are shooting (AR-15-style weapons at people) are not the normal, everyday average citizen or gun owners,” Thrasher said. “They have a mental issue or they’re criminals.”
The Bellingham Police Department occasionally encounters people with AR-15-style firearms, said Lt. Claudia Murphy. She believes that a dangerous person with ill-intent for the community will still be able to acquire these weapons illegally, adding that some may have these weapons already.
Proponents of the ban acknowledge that most of the guns used in mass shootings were acquired legally. “This legislation seems like it might help limit access to the weapons that we know have been used in some school violence,” Smith said.
The waiting period and safety training required in purchasing an AR-15-style firearm under 2019’s Initiative 1639 is now extended to the sale of all firearms, said Rep. Liz Berry (D-Seattle) co-sponsor of House Bill 1143. For Berry, amother of two little ones and someone who lost someone she loved to gun violence, “It’s simple: 10-day waiting periods reduce gun violence. Research shows that delaying a person in crisis from gaining access to a firearm can be the difference between life and death.”
In June 2021, Salish Current reported that, “In 2019, 26 of Whatcom’s 30 gun deaths were firearm suicides according to the county medical examiner’s annual report, 21 of which involved a handgun versus another type of firearm. In a 2009 study, 50% of a sample of suicide attempt survivors said they made the decision to end their life within 10 minutes of making the choice.”
In the article, Amy Dunham, Suicide Prevention Coordinator at Western Washington University, said that making access to a firearm just a bit more cumbersome can be enough to save a life. “Putting distance between someone that is in a suicidal state and lethal means is our goal,” Dunham said.
Prospective firearm buyers are trained regarding firearm safety, gun-violence and suicide prevention, storage, and federal laws, as well as deadly force and self-defense state laws and conflict management, all of which they can complete online. A physical training aspect is not required, however.
Armadillo Arms offers firearm safety training services ranging from basic pistol knowledge to family safety, tactical use and competition, but Job would like to include a physical safety “shoot test” in the new training requirements to verify a buyer’s physical capability to safely and correctly operate the firearm they want to buy. Without a physical test, Thrasher and Job don’t believe there’s enough verification that a customer actually knows how to use a firearm, even if they plan on using it strictly in self-defense scenarios.
On their own accord, Job and Thrasher assess customers’ capability in wielding firearms and they lecture about gun safety. When they don’t believe the customer is adept at handling a firearm or doesn’t seem to be buying it for the right reason, they try to talk them out of it or into opting for a more appropriate firearm. But they typically only refuse a buyer service if they judge the person to be a malcontent.
“If they want it, they’re going to get it,” Thrasher said. “The most you can do is try to talk them out.”
Job has asked local law enforcement about requiring a physical test, and the Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said his office is working with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to understand what specific training requirements would satisfy the statute. Lawmakers behind the requirements don’t anticipate confusion about new safety training elements.
“HB 1143 was modeled on our existing, effective law that dealers, firearm purchasers and law enforcement are experienced with implementing and enforcing,” Berry said. “As such, we expect that implementation will be relatively straightforward.”
A new landscape
Whether or not the ban and new requirements reduce casualties from gun violence, the landscape surrounding AR-15-style firearms has changed.
Shopping at Armadillo Arms has gone quiet since the ban, said Job who felt he wasn’t given enough time to pivot his business model away from selling AR-15-style firearms. Since the ban, the store can’t ship or order any banned firearm products to or from other states, repairs are halted, and many items are on hold, Job and Thrasher said.
Job plans on shifting the business towards firearm training services, covering safety and competition. He hopes to create a nonprofit retreat where visitors can train with firearms and access counselling, and where law enforcement can practice.
No one interviewed said they expect a ban to instantly stop all mass shootings.
Schools are trying to figure out how to prepare students for the possibility while not harming their mental health. Smith said that Bellingham public schools practice security protocols that develop muscle memory for standard response in dangerous situations, similar to the intuitive “stop, drop and roll” lesson for fire safety, but avoid the role play that simulates security threats.
The Bellingham Police Department doesn’t have an officer on campus in any schools, though there are unarmed campus monitors for safety, Smith said. The Bellingham School District offers online resources for parents to talk to their children about preparing for emergencies.
“The world is not a scary place inherently,” Smith said. “There are scary things that happen and here’s how our school is going to respond if we need.”
Moving on a different front, WWU’s chapter of Students Demand Action is pressuring the school to divest from the gun industry.
“Huge corporations have shown time and time again that they’re not willing to make changes to keep our community safe and money talks unfortunately for them more than human lives do,” Williams said. “There’s still work to be done.”
— Reported by Kai Uyehara