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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Crime/Public Safety

Republican Legislators say assault weapons ban won’t hold up in court if passed

March 9, 2023 Updated Thu., March 9, 2023 at 9 p.m.

Washington’s domed Legislative Building, finished in 1928, and the nearby Temple of Justice reflected in the Capitol Lake on a calm day.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review)
Washington’s domed Legislative Building, finished in 1928, and the nearby Temple of Justice reflected in the Capitol Lake on a calm day. (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

The day after the Washington House of Representatives spent over two hours debating and ultimately passing a controversial ban on assault weapons, the arguments haven’t stopped as the bill makes its way to the Senate.

The bill would ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of firearms it classifies as “assault weapons,” including semi-automatic rifles shorter than 30 inches, semi-automatic rifles and pistols with detachable magazines, and rifles with a fixed magazine capacity of over 10 rounds.

House Republicans have repeatedly called the bill unconstitutional and anticipated litigation from federal courts if it becomes law, citing New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a Supreme Court decision from last year.

“It is almost certain that the first federal court that reviews this controversial policy will overturn it,” Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said. “This makes this whole exercise a questionable one, and in my opinion, a waste of Washington tax payers money while we go through a fruitless process.”

The Bruen decision declared unconstitutional a New York law that required applicants for concealed-carry licenses to demonstrate a special need for self-defense. The ruling set a new precedent surrounding gun control, saying legislation must be consistent with historical firearm regulation.

Washington’s assault weapons ban still has a while to go before the litigation that many Republicans say is inevitable. Wednesday night, it successfully passed the House on a 55-42 vote. The bill must pass a Senate committee before being brought to the Senate floor for a vote. If it passes the Senate, the bill needs a final signature from Gov. Jay Inslee.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said his caucus doesn’t support the bill, but the Democrats maintain a strong majority in the Senate.

“If they have a will to pass these types of bills that fly in the face of our state and federal Constitution and recent rulings, then they have the political power to do that,” Braun said. “I think it’ll play out longer term in the courts.”

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said he thinks public opinion as well as much of the Legislature supports legislation to ban assault weapons.

“I think this bill has momentum and has a good chance to pass,” Billig said.

Inslee also supports such a ban, having referenced it as a priority in his State of the State speech at the start of the session. Despite Republican confidence following the Bruen ruling, Inslee doesn’t share concerns the ban won’t survive litigation.

“I believe even with the Supreme Court, that it will be held constitutional,” Inslee said.

If passed, Washington’s assault weapons ban would not be unprecedented. Nine other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws banning the sale, manufacture and transfer of assault weapons, though the definition of “assault weapon” varies in each state’s legislation.

Still, gun control legislation across the nation has been subject to lawsuits, many of which are ongoing.

In California, a district court judge overturned that state’s assault weapons ban in 2021, but a higher court reinstated the ban. Empowered by the Bruen precedent, the same district court judge who once struck down the ban is reevaluating California’s law and will soon announce his ruling.

The assault weapons ban in Illinois is also receiving legal scrutiny, after a county judge this month determined the ban violates the state constitution. The Illinois attorney general has filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court.

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