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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Again and again, Ferguson puts forth assault-weapon ban and the Democratic Legislature ignores it

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is shown in Seattle on Aug. 26, 2019.  (Associated Press)
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is shown in Seattle on Aug. 26, 2019. (Associated Press)

Step back in time to September 2016, when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson first proposed legislation that would ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

It was becoming increasingly clear that these were the tools of choice for mass murderers. There was a recent shooting that had galvanized attention and calls for change (the killing of three teenagers in Mukilteo by a gunman with an AR-15). Ferguson cited research showing that the assault-style weapons and large magazines drive up death tolls in mass shootings, and he cited polling showing majority support for the measures.

The legislation perished without serious consideration in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

And then it happened again. And again. And again.

As the 2021 session of Legislature grinds toward an end, Ferguson’s smart, sensible proposal again gathers dust in a figurative committee-room drawer, even as the issue is debated in Washington, D.C. And, while it’s true that Republicans in Olympia have, and would again, pull out every stop to block these measures, it is the Democratic majorities that own this four-year stalemate.

“One can’t escape the conclusion – speaking as a Democrat – that there is simply a lack of political will by the Democratic majority to take that politically difficult vote,” said Ferguson on Wednesday.

Among the many smart, sound actions we might take to try and stem the flood of gun violence, measures to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines are the lowest-hanging fruit. Large majorities of Americans have supported these measures for many years, according to poll after poll, and there’s good reason to believe they would be effective.

Gallup first asked whether Americans supported banning the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons in 1989 and found 70% did. It has asked similar questions in the ensuing years, “always with majorities in favor, albeit with different levels of support.”

A Politico survey in 2019 found 70% support among all voters, and 55% among Republicans. The Pew Research Center found 71% support for an assault weapons ban in 2019, with 54% support among Republicans. It also found a rising level of general support for stricter gun laws – growing from 52% in 2017 to 60% in 2019.

A truly representative democracy would have passed these bans already – or kept the original federal ban in place.

Gun-control opponents insist these measures are ineffective, which is exactly what they insist about every single gun-safety measure ever proposed. It’s a silly presumption – that the widespread availability of the mass murderers’ favorite weapon is irrelevant – and yet it is an article of faith among the do-nothings, as is the misbegotten idea all gun regulations of any kind are unconstitutional. And yet these silly, misbegotten ideas control gun politics.

As Ferguson notes, such bans have been implemented in other states, and survived court challenges.

Further, there is evidence that restricting these weapons and magazines would save lives; if all we did was take these two tools out of the hands of mass murderers, there’s good reason to believe that, at the very least, more people would survive these mass shootings.

Christopher Koper, a criminology professor at George Mason University, co-authored a 2004 study that is often cited by gun-safety opponents showing the 1994 federal assault weapon ban had a small effect. However, in a 2020 update, Koper has said that the ban, which expired in 2004, may not have been in place long enough for its effects to show up more dramatically. He noted nearly 60% of mass shootings between 2009 and 2017 involved a high-capacity magazine with an assault weapon.

“These incidents resulted in 14 times the number of people injured and two times the number of fatalities compared with incidents that did not involve a high-capacity magazine,” he wrote.

Ferguson put that in personal terms: “If I was in a grocery store (when a shooting occurred) … I would hope to God the shooter didn’t have an AR-15 and a double-drum magazine. If he had a handgun, I’d have a chance.”

That’s where we’re at now, with gun safety. Just trying, with no success, to make the massacres a tiny bit safer.

After Atlanta and Boulder, we have entered another chapter in what is becoming the “War and Peace” of American politics: the national outcry for gun-safety legislation, accompanied instantly by a gusher of bad-faith, do-nothing arguments, all grinding toward another stalemate.

That’s the national story. And, while what’s truly needed most are national solutions, Ferguson remains committed to trying to do what he can in the state of Washington. Last week, he was clearly moved and frustrated by the recent tragedies and with the repeated failures of his legislation to gain a foothold even among lawmakers who support it on principle.

“It’s insane,” he said. “It makes me really mad that we can’t get it done.”

He doesn’t view his proposals as panaceas. Not every shooting involves these weapons, and there are other measures we can take to improve gun safety.

Still, these big, obvious, public-safety-oriented policies should be no-brainers. Their failures are an indictment of our politics, and the way special-interest power exploits political cowardice to build an insurmountable wall out of a minority position.

The wall should have come down in this state four years ago, but Ferguson said he’s not done trying. “I don’t plan on leaving public life until these bills get passed,” he said.

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