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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State House passes open carry ban at capitol, demonstrations; bill heads back to Senate for final passage

An armed protester stands outside the Capitol Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Olympia. A bill banning open carry of guns at the capitol and at public demonstrations awaits the governor's signature.   (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – A controversial bill that would ban the open carry of firearms at public demonstrations and at the state capitol passed the state House of Representatives on Sunday after a five-hour debate.

The bill heads back to the Senate for final consideration of amendments before the governor’s signature. It passed the House 57-40 and initially passed the Senate 28-20.

If passed again by the Senate, the bill would ban open carry within 250 feet of publicly permitted demonstrations and the state capitol. Law enforcement is exempt from the law as well as people openly carrying a firearm on their private property if a protest is occurring outside their home or business. A publicly 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,” the bill reads.

Supporters say the bill ensures those who practice First Amendment rights are safe from intimidation while opponents say the bill is vague and a violation of the Second Amendment.

During the floor debate Sunday, Spokane Democratic Rep. Marcus Riccelli cited a letter from Spokane officials condemning ”armed vigilantes” attending Spokane protests last summer.

“It’s clear that the community I represent wants a vote to keep our eyes wide open and reject intimidation,” he said.

The House passed a few Republican amendments before voting. It now specifies open carry is prohibited within a 250-feet perimeter of an event. It also specifies a person must “knowingly” be within the 250-feet perimeter in order for a criminal penalty to apply. Another amendment also clarified nothing in the bill would apply to concealed carry.

One of the most notable additions is the emergency clause, which would put the bill into effect immediately, instead of waiting the normal 90 days after the Legislature convenes. House Speaker Laurie Jinkins told reporters Monday the emergency clause was a request from the Washington State Patrol.

Republicans criticized the amendments, saying it was an effort to block a voter referendum.

“This is tampering with fundamental rights, and the people must be heard on this policy,” Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said during the floor debate.

Rep. Rob Chase, R-Liberty Lake, called it “unconstitutional.” Supporters of the bill say it is simply extending the list of where firearms are prohibited, such as courthouses and jails.

Spokane’s Sharp Shooting general manager Jeremy Ball said he agrees the government has a right to regulate where firearms are carried, but this bill is “too vague.” Some gun owners could have their rights infringed upon if they are carrying a gun near a protest but have nothing to do with the event, he said.

Ball said the bill leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

A violation would be a gross misdemeanor, which could put a person in jail, fine them $5,000 or both. A jurisdiction taking a case involving this law all the way through prosecution is “really, really unlikely,” he said.

Opponents also argued it would make communities less safe because it could restrict people’s ability to protect themselves if a protest turns dangerous.

Safety at the campus and at protests has been top of mind for legislators. Two demonstrations in Olympia last summer ended with shots fired, and protesters breached the governor’s mansion gate 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 a mass shooting in Boulder last week, Jinkins said this bill would be voted on quickly.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, of Spokane, said Monday the bill likely wouldn’t get another vote in the Senate until April 12, the week both chambers will concur on amendments put on bills by the opposite chamber.

It is a priority bill, he said, but it will have to wait until the concurrence period.

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.