Harrell Wants Local Control Over Gun Policy. He’ll Need Way More Than Luck.

Gun Rights

Taking bets: Will Harrell get local control over gun policy before Sawant gets local control over rent hikes? City of Seattle

As gun violence soars in Seattle, during a press conference last week Mayor Bruce Harrell said he wanted to repeal the law that keeps municipalities at the mercy of the state when it comes to gun policy.

Though he said this year he would lead efforts to try to get relief from the preemption, the Mayor obviously cannot change the statute in question, RCW 9.41.290, all by himself. And lawmakers who have the power to do so aren’t having much luck, either.

It’s been a while

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Nearly 40 years ago, the last time the state had a Republican governor, the Legislature passed a bill that put full control of gun policy in the hands of the state, which tied the hands of cities.

The state’s monopoly on gun policy has caused frustration for Seattle leaders ever since. The Second Amendment Association and the National Rifle Association sued the city in 2018 when former Mayor Jenny Durkan decided the city should force gun owners to store firearms safely, arguing the legislation violated the state preemption. Before that, in 2010, a judge shot down a rule banning firearms in Seattle parks for the same reason.

If the state ever lifted the ban on municipal gun controls, Harrell’s spokesperson said the Mayor would pursue proposals he’s suggested in the past, such as laws to prohibit guns on City property – including in parks and in community centers – and laws to prohibit people under the influence from carrying a gun.

“Crazy-tough”

Striking down the state preemption law, which has enjoyed relative peace from Democratic majorities over the years, would be a huge undertaking. Even Harrell’s office said it would be “a heavy lift” during a short session in the Mayor’s first year.

“That RCW is like every fucking thing related to a gun,” said state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-West Seattle), who is working on gun-control legislation in the senate. “That would be pretty sweeping. If [Harrell] wants to bring that up: First off, good. He should be interested in that, but that would be crazy-tough.”

“Crazy-tough” is right. The most recent attempt to empower localities to control their own policy on guns was introduced in January of last year. The proposal, House Bill 1313, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney (D-Tukwila), did not move. It didn’t even get a hearing. Lawmakers reintroduced the same bill earlier this year, but it still has not moved. HB 1313 co-sponsor Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle), who has worked on this issue since she was elected, said that a bill to repeal state preemption has seen a hearing once in the last six years.

How Harrell could help

While Harrell cannot vote on the legislation in the state, lawmakers said the Mayor could help in other ways.

The first thing he could do is make a lot of noise about HB 1313 or future, similar bills. This year, for instance, the Legislature is pushing Senate Bill 5078, which would ban high capacity magazines statewide. That bill owed part of its recent success to the Attorney General, who requested it.

In a phone interview, Macri said she was glad the Mayor is publicly on board with HB 1313 and encouraged more local leaders to build momentum for the policy change.

Nguyen said Harrell could also help his case by clearly laying out what he wanted to do with the authority to regulate guns. Macri agreed, saying that “fantastical opposition” remained one of the major pitfalls for politicians who want to change gun regulations. Handing cities the keys to gun reform seems nebulous, and critics take the opportunity to imagine worst-case scenarios.

Harrell’s mere mention of messing with state preemption triggered a strongly worded press release from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. The committee’s chairman, Alan Gottlieb, suggested that Harrell “reload his brain before shooting his mouth off.”

In the press release, Gottlieb laid out the typical conservative argument: If every city has power over guns, then we’d end up with what he called a “checkerboard” of conflicting regulations.

Macri is used to this criticism, and she said it’s nonsense.

“There’s different speed limits in Seattle compared to other municipalities, and there’s all sorts of regulation that is governed by local ordinance,” Macri said. “We should trust community members who are closest to what’s happening on the ground.”

Nguyen said an effective workaround to avoid this criticism is to name specific gun issues to hand over to localities. This session, for instance, state Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) is sponsoring a bill to give municipalities the power to regulate open carry in public spaces, a bill that Harrell supports, according to an email from his office.

For now, Mayor Harrell will “continue to engage in support of restoring local authority and work with legislators and the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to advance this effort,” according to an email from his office. He will not put forward policy at this time, as Nguyen suggested.

What else needs to happen to stop gun violence

Whether or not the Mayor somehow manages to knock down the seemingly unmovable RCW, lawmakers and advocates agree there is more work to be done. At every level of government, it will take a comprehensive public health approach to reduce gun injuries and deaths, according to a spokesperson from the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. This is really where Harrell’s power in combating gun violence lies.

A spokesperson for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility suggested the Mayor invest in community-based violence intervention programs, implement existing gun laws, and, importantly, address the root causes of gun violence.

“New laws will not stop gun violence, ‘tough-on-crime,’ has never stopped the spread of violence. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in today,” said Sean Goode, executive director of Choose 180, a diversion program for young people. “If we really want to change the dynamic in the community, if we really want to begin to stop the spread of this disease of violence, then we have to change the material condition that people are living in.”

For Goode, part of that solution includes living wage jobs in Seattle and funding for more youth mentorship.

In the press conference on Friday, Harrell also touched on other modes of stopping gun violence. He said he wants to collect data and find out “who’s pulling the trigger” and to understand what trauma or learned behavior the city could help address.

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