Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Congress is proposing a swath of new gun legislation, but much of it is already law in Washington

OLYMPIA – Gun control legislation is slowly working its way through Congress following last month’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

But if a new negotiated deal announced Sunday passes through Congress, not much will change in Washington.

A number of laws being discussed at the federal level already have been in place in Washington. In recent years, the Legislature has passed a number of laws to limit where and how guns are purchased and used.

Following the massacre in Uvalde, many Washington Democrats urged Congress to follow the state’s lead.

Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement pointed to Washington’s universal background check, high-capacity magazine restriction and storage laws.

“WA has done this, and more,” he said in a statement after the shooting. “Your turn, Congress.”

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Washington ranks 10th out of all 50 states for gun safety strength.

Here’s a look at where gun legislation stands in Washington and how it compares to federal law:

Proposed federal legislation

A group of bipartisan senators announced on Sunday a deal that would provide modest gun restrictions and new mental health and school security investments. It does not go as far as President Joe Biden and other Democrats want, but could be the first significant package of gun legislation passed in Congress in decades.

The deal would include money for states to encourage them to implement red-flag laws, which allow authorities to keep guns away from people whom a judge finds to be a potential threat to themselves or others. Washington voters approved such a measure allowing family or household members to petition a judge for an extreme risk protection order in 2016. It was the fourth state to do so.

The agreement also would require that juvenile justice and mental health records be included as part of federal criminal background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21. Currently in Washington, those under the age of 21 can’t purchase semi-automatic rifles, one of only six states to have the law.

Laws already prohibit spouses from buying guns if they are convicted domestic abusers but did not include “serious dating partners.” The agreement also bars a broader group of convicted domestic violence offenders from purchasing guns, including “serious dating partners,” or ex-partners who were not previously included, an attempt to close what some call the “boyfriend loophole.”

In 2019, Washington passed a law that requires police to seize guns when responding to domestic violence calls. The Legislature also approved another law that allows judges to require the surrender of firearms with a protection order.

The federal deal also would clarify which gun sellers must register with the federal government and be required to run background checks on customers, and it would make it illegal for a person to purchase a weapon for someone else who does not qualify for ownership.

The plan would spend billions of dollars on expanding community mental health centers and suicide prevention programs, but those details still are being discussed.

Democrats at the federal level have pushed for more, including banning assault-style firearms or raising the legal age to buy them, banning high-capacity magazines for guns and expanding background checks.

Those proposals likely will not make it into any final deal passed by Congress, but many of them already are Washington law.

Other laws passed in Washington

In 2014, Washington strengthened its gun laws through the approval of Initiative 594, which made all firearms sales or transfers in Washington, including private sales and transfers, subject to background checks.

In 2018, Washington voters approved Initiative 1639, which increased the age requirement for purchasing semiautomatic assault rifles to 21, created an enhanced background check system for semiautomatic assault rifles and required those purchasing a semi-automatic rifle to take a short gun safety course and wait 10 days to get a weapon.

Inslee signed a bill into law in March that bans selling, manufacturing or distributing magazines for rifles, as well as a number of pistols, that can hold more than 10 bullets. Possession of these magazines is not prohibited under the new law, and law enforcement and armed service members are exempt.

The bill goes into effect July 1.

Jeremy Ball, owner of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane, said about 90% of his firearms will be affected by the state’s new 10-round magazine law, so he’s trying to sell as many of them as possible by the end of the month.

“It’s unrealistic that I can turn 90% of my inventory in three months,” said Ball, referring to the time period of when Inslee signed the bill to the end of June.

He said he tried to no avail working with local Democrats who voted in favor of the bill to allow gun stores more time to sell their existing inventory.

“It’s not going to break the company, but it’s definitely going to have an impact on us,” Ball said.

While customers can still purchase a rifle that can hold a 10-round magazine after July 1, Ball said it would be pointless if manufacturers are prohibited from making 10-round magazines.

Ball said he’s seen an uptick in customers coming in to purchase firearms and magazines, but he’s also been shocked by how many people were unaware of the upcoming law.

Ball said the law won’t prevent people from buying magazines in other states, just like Idaho residents purchase marijuana in Washington and bring it back to Idaho.

“It’s a silly idea, but here we are,” he said of the law.

Democrats and supporters of the bill say it will help prevent mass shootings, while Republicans and gun rights activists pushed against it, saying people opposed to the bill want to be able to protect themselves.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted regulations on large-capacity magazines, according to Giffords Law Center, a gun control organization started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in a mass shooting in which 19 people were shot and six died. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

At the signing of the bill, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had brought the bill to the Legislature every year since 2017, said there likely will be a lawsuit challenging the measure in Washington.

“These bans are constitutional,” Ferguson said. “We’re confident we’ll be able to successfully defend them.”

Sharp Shooting has included on its website a note that says the store will not transfer any magazines to a customer who has a firearm shipped to them with more than a 10-round capacity.

“If the purchase is made prior to (July 1) and does not arrive due to some unforeseen delay we will NOT transfer the magazines,” the gun range warned. “Do not expect online retailers to refund you the cost of magazines or replace them.”

Inslee also signed a bill into law this year that would restrict the use of untraceable firearms, or those manufactured after July 1, 2019, that are not an antique and cannot be traced by law enforcement using a serial number.

Untraceable firearms, also known as “ghost guns,” often are bought online in parts and assembled at home by the buyer. After June 30, making, assembling, selling or purchasing untraceable firearms is prohibited. By March 10, 2023, knowingly or recklessly possessing these firearms is prohibited.

The law does allow for hobbyists to continue to make guns at home, if they use parts with serial numbers.

The Legislature also has taken steps in recent years to limit where firearms can be openly carried.

In 2021, Inslee signed a bill into law that prohibits openly carrying firearms on the state Capitol campus and at permitted demonstrations.

Another law that was passed this year prohibits carrying guns and other weapons at schools, local government meetings and election-related facilities.

Under the law, open carry and concealed carry are prohibited at school board meetings. Concealed carry is allowed for a valid license holder who is picking up or dropping off a student.

Open carry and concealed carry also are prohibited at election ballot counting centers. At other election facilities, such as voting centers or county elections offices, open carry is prohibited, but concealed carry with a license is still allowed.

Reporter Garrett Cabeza contributed to this report.

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.