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Gun control advocates in Washington see their best chance yet for tougher laws

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 2, 2017, 10:01 p.m.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Feb. 2, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Inslee was urging the passage of bills enforcing safe gun storage and enhanced background checks when buying or selling assault weapons. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Feb. 2, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Inslee was urging the passage of bills enforcing safe gun storage and enhanced background checks when buying or selling assault weapons. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Gun control advocates in Washington believe they have the best opportunity yet to get tough restrictions on how some semiautomatic firearms are bought, sold and kept in homes.

Sporting orange scarves to show solidarity for stronger gun safety, they gathered with Gov. Jay Inslee, other statewide officials and sympathetic lawmakers shortly before Thursday’s hearing on two bills they say balance rights with responsibilities on guns.

Past gun control or gun safety measures have stalled in the House and been ignored in the Senate, but have succeeded at the ballot box. Last November, voters in 48 of the state’s 49 legislative districts approved an initiative that allows a court to remove guns from people judged an extreme threat to themselves or other people. Now the Legislature could be asked to vote on several new proposals.

“This is an issue that could cost them their seat,” said Renee Hopkins, chief executive officer of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, of legislators who vote against those proposals.

Later Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee considered two bills the Alliance and other groups support.

  • One would increase penalties for gun owners who don’t lock up a weapon in their home that’s then used to hurt someone, either because it was stolen by burglars or taken by a child.
  • The other would require people who own, buy or sell a semiautomatic “assault weapon” or a high-volume magazine to obtain a yearly license. It would also require anyone buying such a weapon to be 21, wait three days and undergo a background check by law enforcement. Currently such weapons can be purchased by someone who is 18, with no waiting period and with a background check by a gun dealer.

The tougher rules match those for buying a handgun, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. It makes no sense to have less stringent rules for buying weapons that can do much more harm, he told the committee.

But gun rights advocates countered that state laws on criminal negligence already cover many cases the first bill tries to address, and gun owners shouldn’t be held liable for a burglar who hurts someone with a gun stolen from a locked house any more than if he hurt someone with a knife stolen from the kitchen.

Keely Hopkins of the National Rifle Association said the guns in the assault weapon bill are mislabeled, because the term conjures up automatic weapons used by the military. Those guns are already illegal, and the bill is putting restrictions on guns that require the trigger to be pulled for every shot.

They are among the most popular and commonly owned firearms in the country, she said.

Brett Bass, a firearms instructor, said the guns are much more useful for a single person to fend off multiple attackers than for a single attacker to shoot multiple victims.

But families of the victims of past shootings by people using the weapons said the Legislature should do everything it can to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people.

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