With assault weapons ban, Washington enters a new era of gun reform

Gun Rights

Contrast these events with Tuesday’s bill-signing ceremony in the state reception room at the Capitol building and you’ll see just how much the conversation around guns has changed in Washington.

Flanked by dozens of advocates and Democratic elected officials in a Capitol closed due to security cautions, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law shortly before noon a trio of ambitious firearms restrictions.

Inslee signed House Bill 1240, which bans the sale, importation and distribution of assault-style semiautomatic weapons; it took effect immediately. The governor also signed Democratic-sponsored legislation to mandate safety training and a 10-day waiting period for all gun buyers, and a bill creating some liability for firearms manufacturers.

The new laws build upon three voter-approved initiatives – passed in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – to tighten firearms regulations. And they complement other firearms laws passed by the Legislature more recently, such as last year’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

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The ink hadn’t dried on House Bill 1240 before gun-rights groups filed a lawsuit against the law, which doesn’t affect semiautomatic rifles that people already possess. With the U.S. Supreme Court tilting further to the right, conservatives – who view many restrictions as violations of the Second Amendment – are hoping courts will strike it down.

The gathering of lawmakers and advocates told a collective story of the yearslong quest to tighten gun laws in Washington and around the nation. Nearly 30 years ago, as a freshman congressman from Central Washington, Inslee lost his seat after voting to authorize the federal ban on assault-style weapons that lasted many years.

In his remarks, Inslee credited first lady Trudi Inslee’s longtime support for reducing gun violence, calling it “a long journey” begun in 1994 with the federal assault weapons ban.

“This has been a very long bending of the moral arc of the universe, but it does bend toward justice,” Inslee said.

“The victory we are celebrating today, I think ought to be a victory for anyone involved in any long-term cause,” he added. “Keep your head up, keep your heart strong.”

At the ceremony, elected officials like the governor and Attorney General Bob Ferguson – who  both requested House Bill 1240 – credited a host of advocacy groups that have pushed to tighten laws: Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action, and the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. The Alliance was the group that in 2014 launched the first of three voter-approved ballot measures to tighten gun laws.

And there was a shoutout to Washington Ceasefire, which in 1997 pushed for a statewide ballot measure to prohibit the sale of handguns that didn’t have trigger locks. Voters that autumn rejected Initiative 676 by more than a two-to-one margin.

The Legislature, too, was long resistant to tighter firearms laws, leaving much of the heavy lifting to the initiative process. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who sponsored Senate Bill 5078, another of the bills signed on Tuesday, described that dynamic in his speech.

When he was first elected to the Legislature as a representative in 2006, Pedersen said he recalled dozens of Democrats signing a letter telling legislative leaders that they wouldn’t vote to advance gun restrictions. In 2013, Democrats made a serious push to pass a law to strengthen gun buyer background checks. With House Democrats lacking the votes to advance it, the proposal went nowhere, but it did become the basis for the following year’s Initiative 594.

“In that time, the conventional wisdom was that support for gun responsibility measures was a mile wide and an inch deep, and the NRA was capable of incredible organizing, and would turn out people in Olympia and then would turn out people in elections,” Pedersen told those gathered. “To make sure folks in swing districts [voting] for these kinds of bills would never come back to these halls.”

“And I think the story of the last 10 years is a complete overturning of that idea,” said Pedersen.

Mukilteo shooting

The passage in 2014 of Initiative 594 – which extended background checks to private sales and transfers – demonstrated a popular appetite for changing gun laws. But a 2016 shooting at a Mukilteo house party cemented the determination of some elected officials to keep pushing.

Three teenagers died at the hands of a gunman who had bought a semiautomatic rifle just a week earlier. Shortly before heading into the party to open fire, the shooter sat in his vehicle reading the firearm’s instruction manual.

A fourth teenager, Will Kramer, was injured. His father, Paul Kramer, went on to become the citizen sponsor of Initiative 1639, a sweeping package of firearms restrictions that voters approved in November 2018.

Earlier that year, Democratic lawmakers learned once again how hard it was to pass broad firearms restrictions in the Legislature. The 2018 legislative session found Democrats back in control of both the House and Senate – albeit with the slimmest of majorities.

With their newfound control and in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Democratic lawmakers made a strong push for some restrictions on semiautomatic rifles – but couldn’t find the votes.

The Mukilteo shooting, however, stayed in the minds of elected officials. On Tuesday, Ferguson recounted how he met Paul Kramer shortly after the shooting, and vowed to request legislation to restrict semiautomatic rifles every year until it passed.

“That conversation was pivotal for me,” Ferguson said after the ceremony. “I always had strong opinions on the subject, but it sort of transformed me from someone who was interested in and cared about the issue, to just feeling like, ‘Hey, I’m not leaving public life ’til we get it done.’”

Pressure and questioning from school students also pushed lawmakers to act, said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds and sponsor of House Bill 1240, the assault-weapons legislation. At the signing ceremony, Peterson – who represents Mukilteo – thanked students.

“Because of you marching in the streets, because of you refusing to go to class because your friends are dying across the country, Washington state is leading the way,” said Peterson, who has sponsored a rifle bill every year since that 2016 shooting.

What happens next

A Crosscut/Elway poll conducted in late December showed support for restricting assault-style weapons, with 57% of respondents in favor and 39% against. But pollster Stuart Elway called it perhaps the most polarizing question in that year’s poll: 39% strongly supported restrictions, while 30% of those against it were strongly opposed.

House Bill 1240 prohibits the sale and distribution of specific models of semiautomatic rifles – including AR-15s and AK-47s – and provides specific design guidelines that spell out what is still allowed to be sold, according to a legislative analysis. The law doesn’t prohibit possession of such rifles already owned by individuals.

The legal challenge against the bill was ready to go and quickly filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington on Tuesday once Inslee signed it into law.

Brought by the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and the Firearms Policy Coalition, the lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the restrictions, according to a news release.

“The state has enacted a flat prohibition on the manufacture, sale, import and distribution of many types of firearms, inaccurately labeled as ‘assault weapons,’ which are owned by millions of ordinary citizens across the country,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation, in prepared remarks. “In the process, the state has criminalized a common and important means of self-defense, the modern semiautomatic rifle.”

Lawmakers and Ferguson say they have structured Washington’s law to withstand court challenges, in part by studying similar laws in other states that have been unsuccessfully challenged.

“We spent a lot of time carefully crafting the legislation, being mindful of the U.S. Supreme Court and recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and doing everything we could to craft a piece of legislation that we thought could best withstand the inevitable legal challenge,” Ferguson said after the ceremony.

Inslee signed a third bill into law Tuesday, which he had requested and also pushed for all year. That is House Bill 1143, which requires a training certificate and a 10-day waiting period to purchase a firearm. The new law builds upon part of the successful 2018 ballot measure – Initiative 1639 – which set those as requirements to buy a semiautomatic rifle.

In Washington, handguns kill more people than rifles, and there are more firearms deaths by suicide than by homicide or accidents, according to state and national data. Officials hope a waiting period and safety training will help reduce fatalities.

“I’m a mom of two little kids, and it’s devastating to me that gun violence is the No. 1 cause of death for children in our country,” said Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle and sponsor of the bill.

House Bill 1143 started the year as a more ambitious proposal to require a permit and background check before a firearm purchase. That was seen as one possible solution to get the state to follow another part of I-1639: conducting annual checks of pistol and semiautomatic rifle owners to make sure they are still legally allowed to possess weapons.

Last autumn, Crosscut reported that more than four years after state voters approved the initiative, officials still haven’t implemented that part of the law.

“We’re working on that with our partners, and hopefully we’ll have more to say about that,” Ferguson said. “But today’s a day to celebrate.”

After the ceremony, Kramer, the citizen advocate, said there’s more work to be done, including improving access to mental health treatment and making sure schools are safe, among others.

“My role didn’t end today; no, we’re not done, we’re not all the way there,” he said, but added, “This is a big step, a really big step. Certainly want to enjoy this, and take it in.”

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