BATTLE GROUND — On Sunday, about 60 people gathered in Kiwanis Park for an event that featured American flags, military-style rifles and two candidates for city council.
As people, some with families in tow, sat on the grass eating barbecue, Joey Gibson, the founder of right-wing protest group Patriot Prayer, introduced Shauna Walters and Josh VanGelder, two candidates for Battle Ground City Council.
Since Washington voters overwhelmingly passed a gun-control initiative in November, Gibson, who made a name holding rallies in Portland and other liberal enclaves, has turned his attention to trying to keep the new law from taking root.
He and other gun rights activists have appeared before local city councils, including every small city in Clark County, seeking to persuade them to pass measures aimed at stymieing the new law, Initiative 1639. While local city councils have been sympathetic to the concerns of Gibson, each has stopped short of declaring themselves a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”
He’s hoping that will change after this upcoming election.
“You have to be able to secure freedom at a local level, because no one else will do it,” Gibson told the crowd at the rally. He said Walters and VanGelder would do everything to “protect you guys and the Constitution,” and added, “you’ve got to do things that have not been done before, if that makes sense.”
Gibson has viewed Battle Ground, where I-1639 failed to win majority support, as particularly receptive to his cause. He held weekly rallies throughout March in the community of 20,000. He and his supporters were also at a confrontational acity council meeting in April to ask the Battle Ground City Council to declare the city a sanctuary city from I-1639.
Both Walters and VanGelder have expressed a willingness to use local government to oppose I-1639.
“If I’m elected, I will stand with the people’s vote and the Constitution and do everything I can to repeal I-1639,” VanGelder told The Columbian.
It’s not clear if victories by Walters and VanGelder could shift the composition of the seven-member Battle City Council enough to pass a more forceful measure against I-1639. But it could mean a new foothold for the state’s gun rights activists.
“There are a lot of people living in the rural areas that do not care to abide by a law that they see as passed by a bunch, for lack of a better term, Puget Sound elitists who don’t have guns nor like guns,” said Dave Workman, senior editor of gunmag.com, a publication of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation. After two statewide gun-control measures have passed since 2014, Workman said it’s not surprising that Second Amendment activists are running for office.
However, local jurisdictions have limited tools to oppose statewide laws. Tallman Trask, policy and advocacy director with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said that opposition to I-1639 and calls for Second Amendment sanctuaries are based on misunderstandings of the law.
“My impression is that it’s still sort of a fringe thing that people are pushing for,” he said. “It’s a lot of hot air.”
As the country’s urban-rural divide has continued to split, more sparsely populated counties from North Carolina to Oregon have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.” The idea is a dig at liberal, urban municipalities declaring themselves sanctuary cities and refusing to help immigration authorities.
After I-1639 passed with 59 percent of the vote statewide (it was favored by 54 percent of voters in Clark County), sheriffs in at least 20 counties in Washington said they’d refuse to enforce the law. I-1639 raises the purchase age for firearms to 21, expands background check requirements and creates a safe-storage requirement.
Trask said that these declarations by sheriffs have been more “political statements.” He said the law does not direct law enforcement to inspect how people store their guns. He also pointed out that Attorney General Bob Ferguson has indicated to local law enforcement that they will be held liable if they refuse to conduct required background checks. Trask said he’s not aware of any sheriffs refusing to do background checks.
No one is tracking local governments formally opposing I-1639. But last month, Yacolt town councilors passed a resolution opposing the new law. The effort was led by the North County Sons and Daughters of Liberty, a group founded by Walters.
Walters was partly inspired to run for office by I-1639. She has no elected experience and is currently a full-time student at Washington State University Vancouver studying management information systems. She previously served as a combat medic in the Army for 12 years.
She attended one of Gibson’s rallies in Battle Ground back in March and knew she wanted to become more active locally.
“(Joey) inspired me to step out of my comfort zone and get involved,” she said.
The resolution called upon Yacolt, a town of less than 2,000, “to neither authorize nor support the enforcement” of I-1639. The town contracts with the sheriff’s office for law enforcement. Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins has stated he’ll enforce the law.
“The resolution is more of a political statement; it has no teeth,” said Gibson, who called it a “first step.”
Gibson has lobbied local city councils to go further and pass a Second Amendment Sanctuary ordinance. In February, Washougal City Attorney Ken Woodrich issued an opinion after its city council was lobbied by Gibson and others. Woodrich concluded that a new law is presumed constitutional unless a court says otherwise. He wrote that failing to enforce the statute would violate the oath of office of law enforcement and city officials.
Since then, Gibson has called for a “Fourth Amendment ordinance.” According to Gibson, the ordinance would make it illegal for law enforcement to confiscate property without a warrant and allow people to be present before a judge before any firearms can be confiscated.
“If passing the Fourth Amendment ordinance conflicts with 1639, you have to ask yourself, why?” said Gibson. “It’s going to wake people up and help people understand.”
Hugh Spitzer, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said that an ordinance ensuring the enforcement of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against undue search and seizure is “no big deal.” He pointed out that the Washington Constitution has even stronger protections, which he said local law enforcement is usually very careful to observe.
However, Gibson’s ordinance would also require any official from outside a city or county to give the local police chief or sheriff 24 hours’ notice that they are entering their jurisdiction to confiscate property or firearms.
Spitzer said that he’s not aware of any statute that gives local law enforcement that kind of authority.
“The local governments are creatures of the state, they are created by the state, they are controlled by the state,” he said.
All politics is local
While I-1639 remains unpopular with members of the Battle Ground City Council, they’ve been unwilling to use the city’s tools to oppose it.
Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro said he voted against the initiative, but he said that shouldn’t dictate how the city responds.
VanGelder, who grew up in rural Clark County and called for “replacing those who control us with those who serve us,” disagrees. He said that because Battle Ground residents didn’t vote in favor of the measure, the council was effectively “committing voter nullification” by following it.
He is running for council seat Position 7 against incumbent Philip Johnson and Katrina Negrov, while Walters is running for Position 3 against Neil Butler and Candy Bonneville. While no other candidates support I-1639, none of them in an election questionnaire thought there was much else to do about it right now. Johnson, former mayor of the city, took the opposite position of VanGelder.
“I was not interested in voter nullification, which I believe is what we would have been doing if the city had decided to do what they had asked of us, and what I believe the town of Yacolt did,” he said in a candidate questionnaire. “Of course, the fallacy in that is we are not a self-ruling island in the middle of the state, picking and choosing what laws we follow or not.”
Johnson has told gun rights activists that they should instead repeal I-1639 through the initiative process. Walters said the group isn’t interested in that because it would take years for that to happen.
“I believe it is the duty of a council member to use every legal avenue possible to lessen the impacts felt by law-abiding gun owners, including resolutions, ordinances and proclamations at the city level while we await the court proceedings to take their course,” she said.
Dalesandro said he’s met with nearly every candidate running for city council, including Walters and VanGelder, about whom he spoke positively. He said that I-1639 hasn’t even come up.
He said that things have cooled down since a confrontational city council meeting over the issue in April. He said that people get into elected office to help other people and he was frustrated that the city council couldn’t do more.
“We really couldn’t help people on this one, and that’s a tough one for me,” he said.