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Washington considers new agency to study firearm violence prevention, safety

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 19, 2020

In this Oct. 20, 2017 photo, sales clerk Tom Wallitner holds up a Mossberg 715T .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle during an auction at Johnny's Auction House in Rochester, Wash. On a narrow vote, the Senate approved setting up the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention within the Department of Commerce on Tuesday. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
In this Oct. 20, 2017 photo, sales clerk Tom Wallitner holds up a Mossberg 715T .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle during an auction at Johnny's Auction House in Rochester, Wash. On a narrow vote, the Senate approved setting up the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention within the Department of Commerce on Tuesday. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Washington could get a new state agency dedicated to reducing gun violence and improving safety under a bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

And that wasn’t the only gun-related bill to move forward in the Legislature: The House passed a bill that would require a background check on certain parts needed to build a firearm.

On a narrow 25-23 vote, the Senate approved setting up the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention within the Department of Commerce. Democrats turned back a series of amendments from Republicans who called for more emphasis on suicide prevention, narrowing the agency’s purview to safety or expanding it to all forms of violence, and limiting where the agency could give state grants.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the agency should stick with promoting safety and giving grants for that purpose.

“Does anyone here not promote safe firearms practices?” he asked.

That would change the entire purpose of the bill, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said. She’d be willing to look at a separate bill if Schoesler wanted to propose one.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, a certified firearms instructor, wanted to add a section on developing safety programs for pre-K through high school, with groups including the National Rifle Association. There are other bills that do that, Dhingra, the bill’s prime sponsor, said.

Three-fourths of all firearms deaths in Washington are from suicide, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said, and the agency should have a focus on reducing those deaths.

“We have multiple groups and task forces working on that issue,” Dhingra said.

The bill does list the problem with firearms suicide in its opening section, which describes the reason for the new agency.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he was worried about the costs of setting up and running a new state agency and called for a restriction on state grants to any group “owned by a billionaire.”

He didn’t mention by name Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who has backed gun-control groups, but did make a reference to someone spending millions on a presidential campaign.

“They’ve got billions and billions and billions of money, they don’t need Washington state taxpayers’ money,” Padden said.

Democrats did, however, promise to add a word that was inadvertently omitted and that Republicans said suggested the agency would be trying to reduce firearm use in general.

“One could only assume we’re going after law-abiding citizens,” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said. “Law-abiding citizens have never been the problem.”

Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said the concern was a result of a line that called for “an evidence-based firearm reduction initiative.” The word “violence” belongs between firearm and reduction, and will be fixed when the bill goes through the House, he said.

In the House, Democrats approved a bill to expand background checks dealers must conduct on anyone seeking to buy or transfer certain parts of a gun, such as a frame or a receiver, that can be built into a functioning firearm. A person who doesn’t pass the background check can’t purchase those parts.

The FBI has stopped conducting federal background checks for firearms parts.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said building firearms is a “cultural thing, a family bonding thing” for some people. The bill is another attempt to incrementally infringe on fundamental rights to keep and bear arms, he said.

It will only affect law-abiding gun owners, said Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, and “do nothing to keep firearms away from criminals.”

The bill was sent to the Senate on an 56-42 vote.

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