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Thursday, April 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Senate could toughen penalties for crimes involving threats, guns

Washington laws could soon crack down on a person threatening mass violence and on those who try to harass someone by making a false report to 911.

Bills considered by the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Monday could also increase the penalties for felons trying to buy guns when they aren’t legally allowed to and lengthen the wait for felons to have those rights restored after completing their sentence.

More than half of all mass shootings are preceded by verbal or written threats from the shooter, the committee was told. But while current laws cover threats made by one person against another, or a person against a racial or religious group, there’s a gap in what it covers, prosecutors said.

“We do not specifically have a crime based on mass violence,” King County Deputy Prosecutor Pat Lavin told the committee.

A bill under consideration would make issuing a threat of mass violence a felony, punishable by as many as five years in prison, and allow law enforcement officers who respond to the threat to seize firearms, ammunition and any concealed carry permit if they have probable cause to believe they would be used in a threatened incident.

Jane Weiss, whose niece was killed by a mass shooter who issued a manifesto before murdering seven people, called it “a tool to intervene before it’s too late.”

But Vitaliy Kerchen, of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the proposal isn’t needed because there are already crimes that cover harassment, stalking, cyberstalking and bomb threats.

“This bill criminalizes something that is already criminal,” Kerchen said.

Another proposal would increase penalties for “swatting” or making a false 911 call, sometimes with a false name or masked phone number, resulting in a response by a SWAT team or other large law enforcement presence and leading to injury or death.

Under current law, making a false 911 report is a gross misdemeanor. But some prosecutors won’t pursue it because they don’t believe it’s worth the time it would take for a charge that carries no more than a year in jail.

“Calling in a SWAT team to invade somebody else’s home is way more offensive than (a gross misdemeanor),” Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, said. “To me it should be a felony.”

Roxana Gomez, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s an important issue but argued a new felony isn’t the answer. Instead, the Legislature should focus on the “militarization” of police and better training techniques.

New penalties could also be levied on felons who try to purchase a firearm when not legally permitted. Under current law, they can be charged with illegal possession of a gun, which is a felony, if they manage to buy one.

But that law doesn’t cover trying to purchase a firearm and being rejected during the background check. Instead, they can be charged with “false swearing” for submitting the application, which is a misdemeanor. Under the proposal, an illegal purchase or attempted purchase would be a felony with as many as five years in prison.

Felons who were convicted of a crime in which they used a gun could have to wait between three and 10 years to have those rights restored under another proposal. The wait would depend on the seriousness of that crime, and they couldn’t have been charged with a new crime during that waiting period but have completed all the conditions in their sentence from that original conviction. They also couldn’t have a protection order issued against them in the previous five years.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, called it a “cleanup bill” to fix inconsistencies among different jurisdictions in restoring firearms rights.

But Sharyn Hinchcliffe, of the Pink Pistols gun-rights organization, said it was too strict. Felons who “do their time” should have their rights to own a firearm restored when they have their voting rights restored, she said.

The committee is scheduled to decide on Thursday whether to send the bills to the full Senate.

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