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Washington lawmakers want to ban openly carrying firearms at state Capitol, public demonstrations

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 27, 2021

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 or other weapons at public demonstrations and the Capitol Campus could become prohibited if a state Senate bill passes this session.

In its first public hearing, the bill received some support from Democratic lawmakers and gun reform advocates, while Republicans and gun rights supporters said it goes too far.

“It’s time,” bill sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday. “Given what we’ve seen and given the level of political decision, it makes sense as Washington to join those other states that have enacted bans.”

The bill would make it illegal to open carry a firearm while participating in or attending any demonstration held at a public place, within 1,000 feet of a demonstration at a public place after law enforcement advises the person to leave until they no longer possess the firearm, on state Capitol grounds, or inside a legislative office or hearing.

It does not apply to people possessing any weapon inside a private dwelling, building or structure.

Safety at the state Capitol has been a topic of discussion this legislative session after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and protesters breached the governor’s mansion gate at the Washington State Capitol on Jan. 6. Many protesters in both Washington, D.C., and Olympia were openly carrying guns.

Before the start of the legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee deployed the National Guard to assist state patrol and Capitol police in keeping the Capitol safe. Fencing also was erected around the Legislative Building, and strict areas where protesters could meet were designated. Few protesters have since traveled to the state Capitol.

Concealed carry is allowed in the state Capitol with the correct license. Guns are not allowed in the Senate public galleries. Openly carried guns are also prohibited from House galleries. This bill does not apply to concealed-carry rules in the Capitol.

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.

In the bill, “demonstration” is defined as conduct by one or more people communicating or expressing views or grievances. It does not include casual use of property by visitors or tourists. “Public place” is defined as any site that is accessible to the general public.

“Although it may not be common in some of your districts,” Kwieciak told committee members, “many citizens in Washington do exercise their right to open-carry firearms in our state every day without incident.”

Dan Mitchell, owner of Sporting Systems in Vancouver, said the bill “reeks of inequity.”

“If we’re doing such a marvelous policy job, why are there so many angry people outside?” he asked committee members. He also cautioned the committee against doing anything to undermine civil rights.

Republican leadership agreed that the bill may go too far. In a Tuesday news conference, Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said the bill goes beyond just banning open carry in or around the Capitol. It has restrictions on having a weapon in the car and has a broad definition of “public places,” she said.

“This bill conveys something in writing that is much different than what it purports to,” she said.

Kuderer said she did not think the bill would undermine any rights. Lawmakers put restrictions on amendments all the time, she said. She also pointed to courthouses, jails and prisons as places where guns aren’t allowed.

“It’s not a suspension of the Second Amendment,” she said. “It’s simply a reasonable restriction.”

Adrian Diaz, interim police chief of the Seattle Police Department, testified in support of the bill. He said he supports the Second Amendment, but he sees the threats at large demonstrations when people open carry. Guns make no one safe and increase danger for everyone involved, he said.

Democrats aren’t sure what the best options are for safety at the Capitol. There are no metal detectors to get into the Legislative Building, although they were installed for one session in 2005 and then removed.

House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, of Covington, told reporters Monday that lawmakers will have to think of different ways to incorporate safety measures so everyone has a good experience when they come to the Capitol, but he wasn’t sure what that might look like.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said safety at the Capitol is not just about lawmakers.

“It’s about people really feeling welcome to come and they feel safe when they visit,” she said.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said it’s important to strike a balance between access and safety.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, told reporters Tuesday that even though there were armed people banging on a House door last session demanding to see him, he believes most of the gun rights rallies over the last 10 years have been “very well-conducted and peaceful.”

He added it’s already against the law to aim a weapon at someone or to threaten someone with a weapon, and “we should enforce those (laws) without exception.”

The bill will be up for a vote in committee on Thursday.

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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