OLYMPIA – After years of attempts, Democrats in the Washington House of Representatives passed a ban on assault weapons late Wednesday.
The measure was approved one day after the House voted 52-44 requiring that those wishing to purchase a firearm take a safety training course and complete a background check.
The assault ban passed 55-42 and would ban the manufacture, importation, distribution or sale of assault weapons, with some exceptions.
The assault weapons ban has been introduced multiple times over the years, but it never received a vote on the House floor. Wednesday’s passage was the furthest it has ever made it in the Legislature.
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, introduced the bill in 2017, the year after a shooting in Mukilteo left three people dead and one injured.
“This has been happening in our communities and around the state and around the country for far too long,” Peterson said.
Gov. Jay Inslee has made both bills priorities this session. Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office had requested the assault weapons ban, a proposal Ferguson has pushed for for years.
While the bills received support from Democrats, Republicans raised Second Amendment concerns and said the proposals won’t make Washington safer.
Assault weapons ban
Another bill being debated late Wednesday would ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of assault weapons. It defines those weapons as various firearms, including semiautomatic rifles with an overall length of less than 30 inches; rifles with a detachable magazine; rifles with a fixed magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds; semiautomatic pistols with a detachable magazine; conversion kits and parts used to assemble or convert an assault weapon, and a number of specific firearm models.
It does not ban possession of the firearms for those who already have them.
“We cannot hold and wait any longer,” Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, said on the floor Wednesday. “There have been too many school shootings, too many mass shootings.”
The bill exempts antique firearms, those that are permanently inoperable and those manually operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action. The bill also exempts military and law enforcement agencies. Inheriting a firearm prohibited under this law from someone who legally owned it would still be allowed.
Along with arguing the bill violates constitutional rights, opponents said the bill would not do anything to increase public safety.
“The scariest part of this policy is that this is going to be a criminal’s dream,” Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, said.
Opponents took issue with the bill’s intent section, the opening portion of the bill that explains why the Legislature passes a bill.
The intent section for this bill said assault weapons are “civilian versions of weapons created for the military and are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently.” It also says the weapons are not used for self-defense, hunting or sporting and are often marketed as “hyper masculine” and in a way that appeals to “troubled young men intent on becoming the next mass shooter.”
Walsh said the language was written by people who don’t understand guns. He said it has “imprecise language” that could cause confusion.
Democrats argued that the language is important to note that assault weapons are used in most mass shootings across the country.
“The intent of this bill, of this intent section, is to make it clear that we are here to defend our children, so they don’t have to defend themselves with their desks and their pencils and their notebooks in their classrooms,” Senn said.
Violating the law would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year, a $5,000 fine or both.
Walsh said a gross misdemeanor is a “fairly high sentencing guideline for violating the unconstitutional standards of the policy.”
In public hearings, the bill received support from advocates who said assault weapons result in more deaths when used in mass shootings. Opponents, however, said it would not address the misuse of firearms and would only punish those who legally possess them.
In a January committee hearing, Robin Ball, of Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane, said the bill does not address the big problems surrounding firearm violations, adding the state should look at making tougher sentencing guidelines or supporting law enforcement to deal with gun violations.
“This bill will have no impact on gun violence,” she said.
This bill would only punish those who possess these guns legally, Ball told the committee.
Background checks, 10-day waiting period
One bill would require someone wishing to purchase a firearm to complete a safety training program within five years of purchasing it, beginning in 2024.
The course would have to include basic firearms safety, information on gun storage and gun safety for children, suicide prevention, safe handling, and state and federal laws. It would also have to be sponsored by a local law enforcement agency, a college or university, or a nationally recognized organization or firearms training school.
Law enforcement officers and members of the armed services would not have to complete the training.
It also requires the purchaser to complete a background check and then wait 10 days before they are allowed to purchase the gun – a delay that supporters say can help save lives, especially among those who may need a “cooling off” period between wanting to purchase a gun and actually owning it.
“This bill will save lives,” bill sponsor Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, said.
Rep. Darya Farivar, D-Seattle, said the waiting period is critical for the most vulnerable people in Washington, and that it’s an important part in addressing the state’s behavioral health crisis.
Opponents argued that access to guns is needed for people to avoid being victims of crime, such as rape or violent offenses. Others argued limiting access to firearms violated the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said bill problems in the bill were “profound.”
“This bill will impair your right to keep and bear a firearm,” Walsh said. “That’s an irreconcilable problem.”
The bill has received support from gun control advocates and public health representatives, who said requiring training would ensure that people handling guns know how to properly use them. It received opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates, who said it would only punish those who can legally own a gun and would hinder those wishing to purchase them.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said both bills were priorities of Gov. Jay Inslee and Bob Ferguson. Only the assault weapons ban was a priority for Ferguson this year.