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City may strengthen firearms ban in public assembly facilities

Lay down your arms – at least when attending a Spokane Shock game or Bon Jovi concert.

Spokane city leaders are considering changes to local ordinances that strengthen rules banning firearms in public assembly facilities, specifically the Convention Center, the INB Performing Arts Center, Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and Joe Albi Stadium. Among other things, the ban clarifies that even handguns carried by individuals with concealed pistol permits are prohibited.

The proposed changes, introduced by Councilman Mike Fagan and scheduled for council debate Monday, come at a time when gun rights continue to dominate the nation’s political landscape.

Fagan, in fact, first began questioning the city’s firearm restrictions after being approached by a gun rights advocate concerned that local ordinances conflicted with state laws assuring the right of properly licensed individuals to carry concealed pistols on government property. Initially, Fagan sought to bolster those protections, but court rulings have given cities the ability to restrict firearms under certain circumstances, and the proposed changes instead serve to clarify that authority.

“A citizen came to me looking to preserve his Second Amendment rights,” said Fagan, noting he’s a proud conservative who talks regularly with gun rights supporters and feels it’s important to point out they’re not “kooks.” The man had attended a “Ron Paul thing” at the Convention Center and was asked to leave after staff saw his concealed pistol.

“I looked into it,” Fagan said. “Technically, they did (violate his constitutional rights), but state law provides a level of autonomy” for public assembly facilities to create their own rules banning weapons.

“All we’re doing is syncing up with state law,” Fagan said. “To me, it’s an innocuous issue.”

For an innocuous issue, it’s elicited some interesting responses.

“Fagan bringing this forward is unintentionally strengthening this law,” Councilman Jon Snyder said.

Kevin Twohig, executive director of the Spokane Public Facilities District, said he was surprised Fagan introduced the ordinance.

“I don’t know why Mike Fagan thinks he needs to do this. It really doesn’t change anything,” Twohig said. “We hadn’t had a problem.”

Since the 1990s, the facilities district, which runs the Arena, the Performing Arts Center and the Convention Center, has had a “no weapons” policy. Exceptions are made for law enforcement officers and events such as gun shows, Twohig said.

For the first time, thanks to Fagan’s ordinance, this policy would be codified in the city rule books.

Though it’s just now appearing in Spokane’s code, public assembly facilities have long had the power to limit firearms.

In 1991, the state Supreme Court ruled that Seattle could bar its employees from carrying licensed firearms at work. Fifteen years later, the court reaffirmed this ruling when it upheld the city of Sequim’s restrictions on a gun show at its convention center.

In the Sequim case, the court explained that the “critical point is that the conditions the city imposed related to a permit for private use of its property.”

In other words, public assembly facilities play two roles: as a government and as a business. The regulations change depending on what’s happening at them. As a business renting out space for a Spokane Chiefs game, they can impose firearm restrictions. But when they’re acting in their “governmental capacity,” they can’t stop people from carrying licensed pistols.

City Attorney Mike Piccolo, who advises the City Council and worked with Fagan on the ordinance, said it might be confusing, but the law is clear.

“We can say no guns on the gondola … but we can’t say no guns in Riverfront Park,” Piccolo said. The Spokane Falls SkyRide is a business. The park is not. “People are shocked when I tell them you can openly carry a firearm into a City Council meeting, a library board meeting, a park board meeting. We’re an open-carry state.”

Richard Sanders, a justice in the minority on the 6-3 Sequim decision, said at the time the decision circumvented state law, and he stands by that argument today.

“The state constitution is very clear and very strong about the right to keep and bear arms,” Sanders said. “There’s no debate about the state constitution: The right to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged. Shall not.”

Fagan said he worked to reconcile the constitution with local law. But in the end, state law and the high court’s decision won out.

“For the most part, conservatives, Christians, gun enthusiasts, we’re not kooks,” Fagan said. “We’re just expressing our political rights – like everyone else.”