Washington House votes to ban assault weapons

Gun Rights

OLYMPIA — The state House approved an assault-weapons ban Wednesday night, advancing a measure long sought by gun control advocates that has stalled in the Legislature for years.

After a couple hours of debate before a deadline for bills to pass their chamber of origin, the assault-weapons ban, House Bill 1240, made it through on a largely party-line 55-42 vote shortly before 8:30 p.m.

After the vote, some Democrats embraced and traded high-fives on the floor. The action Wednesday pushed the assault-weapons ban further than it has advanced in six previous attempts. It now heads for the state Senate for consideration.

If the measure is approved by the Senate and signed into law, Washington would join nine other states that have enacted laws generally banning the sale, manufacture and transfer of assault weapons, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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Gov. Jay Inslee watched the vote in the chamber and shook hands with supporters of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, clad in orange shirts and watching from the gallery.

“This is a very important vote. It is something that I’ve believed in since 1994 when I voted to make this federal law,” said Inslee, who served in Congress before being elected governor. He said the Legislature had broken “the NRA’s lock on Washington” and that “the vast majority of Washingtonians support this commonsense measure.”

Citing an epidemic of mass shootings and other gun violence in the U.S. and in the state, Democrats have flexed their majorities to push forward the assault-weapon ban while also advancing other gun restrictions, including a 10-day waiting period for purchases and a bill that would hold gunmakers liable for negligent sales.

During the debate on the assault-weapons bill, Democrats pointed to a nonstop succession of mass shootings across the country that have claimed the lives of schoolchildren, teachers, churchgoers, nightclub patrons and others, gunned down by assailants frequently wielding assault-style weapons such as AR-15s.

State Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, lamented a modern cycle of “deaths, sadness, thoughts and prayers, and then back to business.” She said she has experienced a shooter lockdown, and she decried the fearful reality faced by schoolchildren. “Our young people deserve better, and our young people are saying this is not good enough.”

Republicans said the ban violates the federal and state constitutions and predicted it would be overturned by courts. They also argued it would not stop criminals or prevent mass shootings while infringing on the rights of law-abiding people seeking to defend their families.

“Firearms are the great equalizer,” said state Rep. Travis Couture, R-Allyn, Mason County, touting their use to defend against “all sorts of predators.” He said AR-15s and other weapons targeted by the bill are “not weapons of war” but are “the most popular firearms in our society.”

Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, argued the focus on guns is misplaced. “We don’t have a problem with rifles. We have a problem with moral decay,” he said.

Opponents also argued the term “assault weapon” is vague and not well understood by firearms opponents.

HB 1240 lists more than 50 specific gun models that would be banned from future sales in the state, including iconic military-style weapons such as AR-15s, AK-47s and M-16s. It also lists characteristics of prohibited firearms, such as semi-automatic rifles with a length of less than 30 inches, and those that have detachable magazines or fixed magazines with a capacity of ten rounds or more.

Republicans offered more than a dozen amendments trying to narrow or delay implementation of the assault-weapons bill, but most were rejected on party-line votes.

In addition to the assault-weapon ban, Democrats have used their commanding majorities in the Legislature to advance other firearm restrictions this month — as part of a package announced in December by Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The state House on Tuesday passed House Bill 1143 , requiring a 10-day waiting period and safety training before all gun purchases. They had already been required for semi-automatic rifles.

“Studies show this cooling-off period saves lives,” said state Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, the main sponsor of HB 1143, in an interview, pointing to reductions in firearm homicides and suicides in states and counties that have enacted them. “I think that it’s very modest but a very important step forward.”

Sponsors dropped a provision in earlier versions of the bill that would have required people to obtain a state permit to buy guns.

Republicans opposed the watered-down bill, saying it was still impinging on the right to bear arms guaranteed by the U.S. and state constitutions. Six Democrats also voted against the proposal in a 52-44 vote late Tuesday night.

“Although it was narrowed a bit by a last-minute revision, the bill remains a poorly conceived, unconstitutional mess,” said state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, in a statement. He predicted the bill, if enacted, would be quickly overturned by federal courts.

In addition, the state Senate last week approved Senate Bill 5078 , which would give the Washington Attorney General’s office the authority to hold gun manufacturers or sellers liable for gun sales that result in weapons landing in the hands of criminals or mass shooters.

While each those gun measures survived this week’s initial cutoff deadline, they must still be considered and voted on in the coming weeks by the opposite chamber in the legislative session, set to run into late April.

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