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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington lawmakers consider more modest set of gun restrictions

Trudi Inslee accepts a portrait of Governor Jay Inslee previously meeting with Moms Demand Action, a group championing gun safety legislation, in an event on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Olympia, Washington. (Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero/The Seattle Times/TNS)  (Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero/Seattle Times)
By Jim Brunner Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers last year passed a sweeping package of gun laws, including a 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases and a ban on the sale of AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles often used in the nation’s worst mass shootings.

This session, by comparison, the Legislature is taking a small-ball approach.

While lawmakers are considering a few additional restrictions on gun owners and dealers, some more ambitious laws, such as a permit requirement, had apparently stalled as a key legislative deadline ticked by this week.

More than 100 supporters of additional gun measures gathered Thursday morning at a church near the state Capitol to get pointers and encouragement before fanning out to contact their legislators, urging them to keep taking action.

They included people wearing buttons with photos of loved ones killed in mass shootings and other gun violence that persists in the U.S. at high rates virtually unique among the world’s wealthy nations.

April Schentrup’s daughter, Carmen, was among the 17 people killed six years ago this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., by a former classmate wielding an AR-15-style rifle with hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

“In an instant, Carmen was taken from me and my world changed,” said Schentrup, now a Washington resident, pointing to gun violence as the leading cause of death among children in the U.S.

Schentrup said this time of year, so close to the anniversary of the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre, is particularly difficult. She said she sometimes wears Carmen’s earrings and necklace, and her favorite color — teal — to remember her.

“With more and more parents understanding my heartache, we can no longer sit by the sidelines and wait for change,” she said at the Thursday church rally.

Amid such calls for more action, and even with Democrats holding solid majorities in the state House and Senate, some major new gun restrictions sought by gun-safety groups have languished in the ongoing 60-day legislative session, which runs through March 7.

Notably, a proposal to require a permit to buy firearms did not even get out of committee. Also stalled are a proposed tax on ammunition, a requirement for gun owners to buy insurance, a limit on the number of guns someone can buy at once, and a bill supported by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell repealing a state law that mostly prohibits cities from enacting their own gun restrictions.

Still, a few bills survived this week’s cutoff deadline to be voted out of the state House or Senate.

Notably still in play is House Bill 2118, which would require gun dealers to run annual background checks on employees, carry liability insurance and have beefed-up security systems, including video surveillance.

House Bill 2021 would allow the Washington State Patrol to destroy guns it has seized because they were used in crimes or otherwise illegally possessed.

And House Bill 1903 would require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement within 24 hours of when they discover the theft or loss — compared with the current deadline of within five days.

Those three proposals passed the House and are awaiting action in the Senate.

The Senate has been more cautious, approving one measure, Senate Bill 5444, which would prohibit people from carrying firearms in public libraries, zoos, aquariums, and transit facilities, unless they have concealed-carry permits. Before passing the Senate, that bill was watered down to remove public parks and state or local government buildings.

State Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, chief sponsor of the stalled gun permit bill, as well as the still-moving theft reporting bill, said in an interview “there is not a loss of appetite” among the public and Democrats for further gun laws. She said she hears constantly from constituents and particularly young people traumatized by the continuing stream of school shootings.

But, she said, Democrats and advocates decided to strategically concentrate on “low hanging fruit” this session and would return to the more consequential bills next year — including the permit to buy guns.

“That is the next big thing that we want to do, and I am going to get it done next year,” Berry said.

This year’s proposals are part of a continuing stack of gun restrictions that have been approved by state lawmakers or by voters through initiatives since the 2012 massacre of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Since then, Washington has approved enhanced background checks for gun purchases, and a red-flag law allowing guns to be seized from people posing imminent risks of harm. The state also has banned high-capacity gun magazines and prohibited open carry of firearms at the state Capitol.

Republicans have as a bloc opposed the mounting gun restrictions, arguing they violate the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

State Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said the focus on guns is misplaced and that Washington’s crime problems, including homicides, have worsened in some places even as the state cracks down on guns.

“The only way that these kinds of things would stop is if you could snap your fingers and make firearms go [a]way in the United States,” Wagoner said in an interview, pointing to the millions of guns the government would have to seize. “The problem isn’t with legal gun owners, OK? The problem is with criminals.”

At a legislative hearing on some of the House proposals this year, gun rights groups and representatives of gun sellers and shooting sports groups objected to the proposals they said would place an onerous burden on businesses and legal gun owners.

“Imagine getting robbed and then getting slapped with a $1,000 fine,” said Aoibheann Cline, the northwest regional director for the National Rifle Association, at the hearing, criticizing HB 1903’s requirement that gun owners report stolen firearms within 24 hours or potentially face such a fine.

But supporters of such requirements for gun owners, as well as the enhanced security proposal for gun shops, said they will help address the flood of firearms, including those bought by “straw purchasers” to resell illegally.

“That’s going to have a big impact,” said Dylan O’Connor, government affairs director for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

He pointed to a rash of people smashing windows — sometimes using cars and in one case, in Sequim in 2019, a forklift — to break into gun shops and make off with rifles and pistols.

More than 600 firearms were stolen in 94 reported theft incidents from federally licensed gun shops between 2017 and 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

HB 2118 would attempt to address the problem by requiring gun dealers to report thefts within 24 hours and require video cameras throughout the store, with recordings stored for two years.

Berry said the ongoing efforts in states like Washington are a stand in and a marker for what should be nationwide action — a development that is unlikely in a Congress with split control between Republicans and Democrats.

“What we really need is a 50-state solution. The more states pass and socialize and educate about these commonsense gun safety measures, the more pressure is put on the federal level,” she said.