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Open-carry at public demonstrations, capitol campus one step closer to becoming illegal after state Senate passage

Feb. 25, 2021 Updated Thu., Feb. 25, 2021 at 9:39 p.m.

An armed protester stands outside the Capitol on Jan. 11 in Olympia.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
An armed protester stands outside the Capitol on Jan. 11 in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Openly carrying firearms at demonstrations and on the state capitol campus is one step closer to being illegal.

In a 28-20 vote on party lines, the state Senate passed a controversial bill that would ban open carry within 250 feet of public permitted demonstrations and at the state capitol. It does not apply to concealed-carry rules in the Capitol, which is allowed with the correct license.

“What you need when you come to the Capitol is your voice,” bill sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said on the Senate floor Thursday. ”What you don’t need is a weapon.”

Law enforcement agents would be exempt from this law. It also would not prevent a person from openly carrying a firearm on their private property if a protest is occurring outside their home or business. A public permitted demonstration is defined as “a gathering of 15 or more people at a single event in a public place for which a permit has been issued by a government agency or has been designated as permitted by certain local government officials,” according to a bill amendment that passed Thursday.

In a lengthy floor debate, Democrats argued the bill doesn’t infringe on Second Amendment rights as it extends the list of where firearms in the state are prohibited, such as courthouses and jails.

The bill is about ensuring people who are practicing their First Amendment rights feel safe, said Sen. Manka Dhinra, D-Redmond.

“It’s about democracy,” Dhingra said. “It’s about ensuring a handful of people don’t use their weapons to silence individuals.”

Republicans, on the other hand, argued the bill restricted people’s ability to protect themselves if they are at a protest that turns dangerous. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said while supporters of the bill don’t tolerate any infringement on First Amendment rights, “nor will I tolerate any infringement on the Second Amendment.”

Other opponents of the bill said it would take away legal gun owners’ ability to protect themselves if they feel unsafe at or near a public demonstration.

“You become the criminal because you know how to protect yourself,” said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy.

Some lawmakers also had concerns that the language in the bill was too vague. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the bill has liability concerns. He called it “difficult to enforce.”

In committee, the bill generated similar mixed feelings. Gun reform advocates and Democrats supported it while gun rights supporters and Republicans said it went too far. Tom Kwieciak, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, called the definitions “unconstitutionally vague.” He also said the law would be ripe for selective enforcement.

Safety at the capitol campus and at protests has been top of mind for legislators in the past few months. Two demonstrations in Olympia last summer ended with shots fired, and protesters breached the governor’s mansion gate on Jan. 6. Many protesters at demonstrations on Jan. 6 in Olympia and Washington, D.C., that ended with a pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol were openly carrying guns.

After the events on Jan. 6, Gov. Jay Inslee deployed the National Guard to assist state patrol and Capitol police in keeping the Capitol safe. Fencing was erected around the Legislative Building and still stands to this day.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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