Another explosive year for gun bills in Washington Legislature - Salish Current
March 25, 2024
Another explosive year for gun bills in Washington Legislature
Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Bills awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature will expand the list of places where open carrying of firearms is banned, penalize gun owners who fail to promptly report the theft of weapons and toughen security requirements for federally licensed firearms dealers. (St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

March 25, 2024
Another explosive year for gun bills in Washington Legislature
Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

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This story was originally published in the Washington State Standard on March 21, 2024.

Democratic state lawmakers used this year’s legislative session to bolster Washington’s bonafides in reducing the threat of and harm from gun violence in communities.

“Without a doubt, Washington families will be safer thanks to these lifesaving measures,” said Sue Shutz, a volunteer with the Washington chapter of Moms Demand Action, days ahead of the final gavel.

But critics contend the most immediate product of their legislative handiwork will not be greater public safety but shuttering of small businesses and punishing law-abiding firearm owners.

“Once again, the Democrats pass firearm legislation that only hurts people that are already obeying the law,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Woolley), a member of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which considered all the legislation.

Three bills awaiting Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature will expand the list of places where open carrying of firearms is banned, penalize gun owners who fail to promptly report the theft of weapons and toughen security requirements for federally licensed firearms dealers.

Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, approved each one over the vocal objections of Republicans. 

There is also legislation on the governor’s desk to ensure law enforcement agencies can destroy firearms received through buy-back programs and to make sure those required to surrender their firearms due to a conviction or civil commitment do not get them back without a court order. These each passed with bipartisan support.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said they sent the governor “common sense measures” that build on “the work we’ve been doing the last few years that I think has really made a difference.”

Where Washington stands 

In 2021, guns played a role in the deaths of 896 people in Washington, a rate of 11.2 deaths for every 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Disease Prevention. That tied Washington with Iowa for the 11th lowest rate in the United States. [Also read “As gun deaths rise in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties, state refocuses to public health approach,” Salish Current, June 11, 2021]

The vast majority of those deaths — 69% in 2021 — were suicides with homicides accounting for 28%, per federal and state data.

Meanwhile, Washington, through voter-approved ballot measures and legislation, has enacted some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun control organization, ranks it as the ninth-best state when it comes to the strength of its gun laws. 

The state could climb in the group’s ratings with this year’s batch of bills. But critics say they won’t make a dent in the toll from gun-related violence.

Senate Bill 5444 on Inslee’s desk would continue a trend to limit when a person can openly carry a firearm in certain public areas without a permit. Individuals can carry a concealed weapon with a license at such locations.

A couple years ago, lawmakers banned open carrying of guns at the state Capitol grounds and within 250 feet of permitted public demonstrations. They also created gun-free zones in election offices and where school boards meet.

This year legislation extends the prohibition to transit stations, bus shelters, public libraries, zoos and aquariums. Public parks were included in the original bill but later removed. 

Democrats also pushed through House Bill 1903 requiring gun owners to report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement within 24 hours of discovering their weapon is gone. Failure to do so could result in a civil infraction and $1,000 fine.

‘Extremely confusing’

Arguably the most contentious gun-related legislation this session was House Bill 2118, which sets out a slew of additional operating requirements on licensed firearms dealers. Their employees must be at least 21 years old, for example.

Also, their digital surveillance system must provide video coverage of building entrances and exits and where transactions are made. Video must be kept for at least 90 days — down from the original bill’s six years. It also specifies minimum standards for storage of records and firearms.

Wagoner said the last licensed firearms dealer in his hometown would likely be forced out of business because he operates in leased space.

“He will not survive. How will he convince the building owners to make all the changes required to comply,” Wagoner said.

The bill targets those firearms dealers who are not following state and federal laws, making sure such noncompliance doesn’t foment an underground economy for weapons, Dhingra said.

Jeremy Ball, owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane, testified against the bill. He said he’s waiting on guidance from the state to understand exactly what he’ll need to to do.

“The bill is extremely confusing, unclear and doesn’t take into account many operations and individual security measures already in effect from dealers,” he said. “The state is notorious for not providing any guidance to firearms retailers and we expect it will be the same with this.”

More laws, more safety? 

Dhingra said a small dip in the suicide rate since 2021 is evidence of new laws making a difference as they are implemented and enforced. [Also read “How new gun laws might make a difference, Salish Current, May 19, 2023]

She said greater use of extreme risk protection orders, which allow a court to require guns be taken from those deemed at risk of harming themselves or others, could be why the suicide rate decreased. 

Requiring those convicted of gender-based crimes to surrender their weapons, and to petition a court to get them back, is another step taken by the Legislature to prevent a fatal escalation of a domestic violence dispute.

“It is very hard to talk about saved lives and things that have not happened,” she said when asked if all the bills are reducing gun violence.

Ball said lawmakers could do more to achieve their goals and increase public safety by revising their priorities.

Though there are more deaths tied to drug use than guns, “legislators are still interested in decriminalization of drug use and are picking on the firearms industry to score political points.”

Property crime is on the rise yet the Legislature has not moved to impose tougher penalties on those responsible, he said.

“The consequences of allowing property crime are increased drug use, illegal firearms trafficking, and higher cost of living for everyone in Washington,” he said. “The bottom line is that we have a crime problem and until that is under control and the public feels safe living in this state, they are not going to stop buying firearms for personal protection.”

— Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

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