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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Principles, emotions and practicality collide over public safety issues

Sue Lani Madsen  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen (JESSE TINSLEY)

Protecting public safety is common ground. The challenge of securing safety while protecting individual liberty was highlighted by the testimony over four bills heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday in Olympia. Raise the issue of gun control and common ground is quickly deserted. Appeals were made to emotion, practicality and principle.

HB 1143 would require obtaining a permit before purchasing a firearm. HB 1144 is similar but adds a mandatory training requirement prior to purchase. HB 1240 is an assault weapons ban. HB 1178 would allow city and county ordinances regulating guns to supersede state law.

There was much emotion on display, from a woman who had experienced grief following suicide of a family member to a woman who had experienced the terror of a home invasion and valued having the means to defend herself.

Powerful, emotional appeals are a poor basis for state policy. But personal anecdotes do illustrate issues. Clearly as a society we need to work on mental health care and social stigmas around asking for help. However, adding delays and cost to gun purchases wouldn’t necessarily change the tragedy of a suicide. If someone does not already own a gun, substitute means are ubiquitous.

HB 1143 and HB 1144 require a waiver of medical records privacy, paying fees and, in the case of HB 1144, completing approved training before being granted a permit to purchase. Several testifiers pointed out that exercising no other basic right is contingent on proving mental health, ability to pay or education. Walla Walla County Sheriff Mark Krider said there was no way his office had the resources to fingerprint every person in his county who wanted a permit to legally purchase a gun. Imagine applying the same requirements in order to vote. It would clearly be voter suppression.

Laws rather obviously apply only to people inclined to follow them. Robin Ball, retired owner of a Spokane gun shop and firing range, said the bills do not address the real problems behind misuse of firearms. She pointed to the frequency with which “gun violations are pled to lower charges or mostly dropped in our state courts,” a lawyerly strategy which also reduces the usefulness of background checks. “This bill will have no impact on gun violence,” Ball said.

HB 1240 is another run at an assault weapons ban, a squishy term at best in spite of the bill’s attempts at a definition. Both pro and con testifiers referred to the 1994 Clinton era ban, asserting either that it worked well or had little to no impact. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org says both sides cherry pick the data, and described the results of the ban as “mixed.” While crimes involving “assault weapons” declined, it was “offset throughout at least the late 1990s by steady or rising use of other guns.” Suppress one weapon, and it’s no surprise that another takes its place.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs weighed in supporting HB 1178, saying “decisions are best made closest to the people they are impacting.” He will surely be reminded of that statement any time state regulations are debated in Spokane. As Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels pointed out, while he generally agrees with the principle of local decisions are best, allowing different jurisdictions to have different standards is simply unworkable for state concealed pistol license holders. He pointed to his own commute, which crosses four jurisdictions from home to work, not unlike many workers in the area. Complying with a patchwork of rules for storage and transport is “an unreasonable expectation,” Nowels said. “Reject and do not create criminals out of our good citizens.”

Beggs testified HB 1178 would provide more flexibility for local options to protect public safety “as long as we maintain those minimum constitutional rights.” In a follow-up email asking what those local options might be, Beggs said, “In the past I have pondered civil financial remedies for gunshot victims from those sharing in responsibility of the shooting in addition to the shooter (who usually doesn’t seem to have any assets). There could be clearer liability for gun owners who don’t secure their guns adequately”

His point of view on HB 1178 is shaped by his own experience having armed protesters on his front lawn, saying in his email he was also now more open to considering “vulnerable locations where guns shouldn’t be allowed either due to the risk of high casualties or high potential for intimidation.”

I empathize with that feeling of vulnerability, although the protesters haven’t been on my lawn yet. Credible threats have meant exercising my own rights under Article 1 Section 24 of the Washington state Constitution: “The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired.”

And that means no impairment with a system of fees, tests, special definitions and a patchwork of rules.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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