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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

I-1639: Five frequently asked questions, five answers

Firearms initiative goes into effect Monday

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter, and
Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: June 30, 2019, 6:00am

Owning certain kinds of firearms in Washington is about to get more complicated.

On Monday, much of Initiative 1639 will go into effect. Passed with 59 percent of the vote (54 percent in Clark County) in November, the initiative brings a series of wide-ranging requirements to how firearms can be obtained and stored.

Although it’s a new statewide law, it assigns a significant role to local law enforcement officials and prosecutors. The debate over I-1639 has continued after its passage as county sheriffs across the state balked at enforcing the new law, arguing it violates the constitution.

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins faces a federal lawsuit from a local gun store owner after indicating he would enforce the law. Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman initially said he’d take a wait-and-see approach before enforcing the law. But now he said he’ll carry out I-1639 with the goal of “uninfringing” the constitutional rights of citizens to bear arms as much as possible.

There hasn’t been much to enforce until now. A provision making it illegal for individuals younger than 21 to obtain many types of firearms has been the central provision to go into effect so far.

With the rest of the initiative poised to kick in, opposition remains as some of the law’s more controversial provisions remain unsettled and uncertainty surrounds others. Here are some answers to five commonly asked questions.

What will change Monday?

Washington residents wanting to purchase “semiautomatic assault rifles” now will have to undergo an enhanced background check, prove that they’ve undergone firearms safety training and could face criminal liability for not securing firearms. The new restrictions are centered around “semiautomatic assault rifles,” a sweeping definition created by I-1639 that includes both military-style rifles and those used for hunting and target shooting.

In 2014, Washington voters passed Initiative 594 requiring background checks on all gun sales, including private sales, which was upheld in court.

The new initiative goes further by extending the enhanced background checks already required for pistols to other firearms. The checks include searching the Washington State Patrol’s database to see if the applicants has outstanding arrest warrants. The law further requires 10 days to have elapsed from the date of the purchase application before a semiautomatic assault rifle can be handed over a purchaser.

“So to go through all this paperwork just to buy a .22-caliber rifle starting July 1, people are going to be furious about this,” said Dave Workman, senior editor of gunmag.com, a publication of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation.

Background checks will be conducted by local police departments and sheriff’s offices. Tallman Trask, policy and advocacy director with the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said that law enforcement already checks for handguns and that they could be completed sooner than 10 days.

“Yes, we do expect it to increase our workload substantially,” said Thurman.

The Washington Department of Licensing has proposed charging an $18 fee for the sale or transfer of each weapon. But Thurman said he was skeptical that the fee will offset costs because state government will keep part of the fee.

Atkins declined to comment for this article.

Mental health records check?

As of Monday, the application to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle will include a waiver of confidentiality to the Washington State Health Care Authority, mental health institutions and other health care facilities. The waiver allows those institutions to release records to law enforcement agencies about the applicant’s eligibility to purchase a firearm.

According to a page on the state attorney general’s website, these searches will include records of individuals found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity.

Trask said that check will only apply to legally adjudicated records that would prohibit someone from owning a firearm in the state. He said they include records of an applicant being involuntarily committed or being found incompetent to aid in their own defense.

“It’s not a totally new thing that’s being done,” he said, noting that similar checks are already performed for pistol purchases.

But Workman objected to what he called an invasion of privacy.

“For me to have to sign away my medical privacy in order to buy any kind of a firearm, I feel like that’s a constitutional issue,” he said.

What are the training requirements?

Individuals wanting to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle will now have to first produce a certificate that they’ve completed a training course. The course can be offered by a law enforcement agency or other organization that offers firearm training. The training must cover basic safety rules, secure gun storage, talking to children about gun safety, suicide prevention and firearm laws.

The Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office has begun offering a free two-hour class to all residents of the county. Thurman said the first two classes for 30 people filled up right away.

“Our intent in (offering the class) is just to assist the citizens in their ability to retain guns,” he said.

He also criticized the vagaries of this part of the law, pointing out that there is no testing requirement.

On June 17, Daniel Mitchell, the owner of Vancouver-based gun store Sporting Systems, posted a video to Facebook stating that he was working on free online training that would be available to every Washington resident.

“I don’t think Washington citizens should have to pay to take a class to be able to purchase a firearm to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” he said.

Brionna Aho, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said that there’s nothing in the law that prohibits nor explicitly allows online training.

Workman said he’s not sure what training resources are available across the state and recommended people start with their local gun store.

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What’s not settled?

Shortly after last year’s election, the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation sued Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the state challenging the constitutionality of I-1639. In February, the lawsuit was refiled in federal court naming Atkins as an additional defendant. Ferguson is not named as a defendant in the second lawsuit.

Mitchell, who could not be reached for comment, is the lead plaintiff in the suit. The lawsuit argues the law infringes on the plaintiffs’ rights under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments. A judge has denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is not expected to be resolved for years.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear how one of the more controversial parts of the law will play out. I-1639 contains a provision requiring the Department of Licensing to verify “on an annual or more frequent basis, that persons who acquired pistols or semiautomatic assault rifles” remain eligible to own them.

“That is a concern to a lot of people,” said Workman. He said some gun owners feel that they are being treated like they need to “prove themselves innocent” every year.

Christine Anthony, spokeswoman for the Department of Licensing, said that the department is currently working out this provision with partners in law enforcement.

What is safe storage?

Under I-1639, gun owners could face criminal charges of “community endangerment” if they leave a firearm where they “reasonably should know” that a felon or underage person could gain access to it. The law allows individuals younger than 21 to access firearms under the supervision of a parent or an adult in a training course or a similar setting.

Trask describes the storage provision as an “incentive,” giving local prosecutors the discretion to bring charges in these cases.

Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said that his office does not expect a large increase to its caseload. Unlawful possession of a firearm is a common crime that the office prosecutes, Golik said. While similar, the criteria for charging the new set of crimes is more specific.

“It’s going to be a narrow set of circumstances that we would see under this law,” Golik said.

In each case, victim input, the egregiousness of the alleged crime and defendant conduct will also weigh into the decision whether to charge, Golik said. The office also plans to keep track of pending litigation and will follow direction from the state Attorney General’s Office.

“I think a lot of people have legitimate questions about what this law means,” Golik said. “It is also a new law that has not been tested.”

While the law doesn’t contain a detailed description of what “safe storage” entails, Trask said it can include a number of things such as safes and trigger locks.

Luke Boyer, a co-owner of Tracker Safe in Vancouver, said he noticed an uptick in business in the months after the initiative passed in November. Foot traffic at the store has since returned to normal, but Boyer guesses it may rise again after the law takes full effect.

“It comes and goes with publicity,” Boyer said. He added, “It’s not like we developed our business in anticipation for this to happen.”

Columbian political reporter
Columbian county government and small cities reporter