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State and federal lawmakers push gun control bills in wake of Georgia, Colorado shootings

FILE - In this Oct. 2, 2018, file photo, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash.   (Elaine Thompson)
By Laurel Demkovich and Orion Donovan Smith The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – Democrats moved Tuesday to revive efforts in Congress to change gun laws after two high-profile mass shootings less than a week apart, but a stubborn partisan divide threatens to block even modest reforms.

After a 21-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, on Monday, congressional Democrats called for swift action on legislation to stem gun violence.

“What happened in Boulder yesterday is a tragedy,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote Tuesday on Twitter, “and unfortunately it’s one that’s all too common in our country. The best way to honor these victims & their families is to pass commonsense gun legislation without delay.”

Just six days before Monday’s slaying in Colorado, another 21-year-old man killed eight people – six of them women of Asian descent – at three Atlanta-area spas. While there were fewer mass shootings last year than in years prior, firearm-related homicides increased from 2019 to 2020, according to the nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive.

On March 11, the Democratic-majority House passed two narrow gun reform bills that would expand background checks, making them mandatory on all gun sales and transfers, and extending the background check period from three to 10 days.

Both votes were nearly along party lines, with only eight Republicans and one Democrat crossing the aisle to vote with the other party to keep the “Bipartisan Background Checks Act” – the bill that would make the checks universal – from being a misnomer. Just two Republicans backed the bill to allow more time for background checks.

No Northwest lawmaker in the House broke with their party, with GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse of Washington, along with Idaho Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson, all opposing the measures.

“My heart breaks for the grieving families and communities of the 18 innocent lives lost in Georgia and Colorado,” Rodgers said in a statement. “These awful acts of violence – and the evil that fueled them – have no place in our country. We must unite against all forms of violence and hate as we continue to pray for the victims and their families.”

The fate of the two bills in the Senate is unclear. Although Democrats hold a narrow majority in the upper chamber, the filibuster rule requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass most legislation.

Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Idaho Republicans, issued a joint statement condemning violence against Asian Americans on Friday, but neither senator has publicly addressed the shootings in Georgia or Colorado.

Crapo spokeswoman Melanie Lawhorn said Idaho’s senior senator “would not be supportive of legislation that diminishes the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.”

In an address to the nation Tuesday, President Joe Biden urged the Senate to pass the two background check bills.

“This is not and should not be a partisan issue – it is an American issue,” Biden said. “We have to act.”

The president also called for restoring the ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines he championed as a senator in 1994, but which expired in 2004. Police say the shooter in Boulder bought an AR-15-style assault weapon just six days before he used it to kill 10 people. In Georgia, police say the shooter bought a handgun just hours before he began shooting.

In Washington, most gun reform bills already failed this session

In the state Legislature, many of the gun reforms proposed this session have failed.

“We’re at a place in session where we have one bill that really is addressing gun violence specifically,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins told reporters Tuesday.

That bill that would ban openly carrying firearms at the state Capitol and at public demonstrations. It passed the Senate last month and is awaiting a floor vote in the House.

Jinkins said the House will likely debate the bill on the floor but did not say whether that process would be sped up because of the events in Boulder. The cutoff date for the bill to pass this session is April 11.

It would ban open carry within 250 feet of a public permitted demonstration and on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. A permitted demonstration means “a gathering for which a permit has been issued by a federal or state agency or a local government; or a gathering of 15 or more people who are assembled for a single event at a public place that has been declared as permitted by the chief executive, sheriff, or chief of police of a local government in which the gathering occurs,” according to a bill analysis.

Republicans have concerns that the bill is too restrictive and will prevent people’s ability to protect themselves if they are at a protest that turns dangerous.

Democrats, on the other hand, have said the bill ensures people who are practicing their First Amendment rights feel safe.

They added it doesn’t infringe on Second Amendment rights, as it extends the list of where firearms in the state are already prohibited, such as courthouses and jails.

“There’s no single bill that cures gun violence,” Jinkins said, “but there’s a lot of bills that would help us be able to curb it.”

She said the Legislature has passed other gun reform bills in the past and the open carry legislation will likely be another.

Other gun reform bills heard this session, however, likely won’t be.

A bill that would’ve banned large-capacity magazines with more than 17 rounds of ammunition passed out of committee but never made it to the floor for a vote. It would’ve made it a gross misdemeanor to manufacture, possess, distribute and sell large-capacity magazines except in certain cases.

The bill defined a large-capacity magazine as a feeding device with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition or any conversion kit from which a device can be assembled.

“This balanced approach that focuses on gun responsibility but keeps these accessories out of the hands of mass shooters is the right approach for our state,” co-sponsor Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, told members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee in January.

Another bill, requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, would have banned the sale of military-style assault weapons but never even got a committee hearing.

Republican leaders said Tuesday they would not support using any extraordinary measures to revive gun reform bills before the end of this session in April, although no Democrats have hinted that they plan to do so.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, of Centralia, said the violence in Colorado was unacceptable, but it was already illegal.

“Adding one more way that it’s illegal is not the way you’re going to solve this problem,” Braun said, pointing to the need for additional mental health resources.

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.

Orion Donovan Smith's work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. 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.