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Inslee, Ferguson join efforts to ban semiautomatic rifles in Washington

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility's policy agenda for the upcoming legislative session also includes a permit-to-purchase law.

By Joseph O’Sullivan, Crosscut
Published:

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson will request legislation for a statewide ban on the purchase or transfer of assault-style semiautomatic rifles as part of the latest push by firearms-safety advocates in Olympia.

That proposal and others are in the legislative agenda released Wednesday by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility ahead of the legislative session beginning in January. They arrive after a recent shooting at Seattle’s Ingraham High School that killed a student, along with the latest spate of high-profile mass shootings nationwide. Meanwhile, many Democrats have continued to campaign for stricter firearms laws.

The advocacy group is also pushing for lawmakers to allow private citizens to pursue legal action against gun manufacturers, a proposal that also has Ferguson’s and the governor’s support, according to Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith.

It remains to be seen if Democrats, who hold comfortable majorities in the state House and Senate, have the political will or votes to push through those ideas or other proposals.

Various proposed bans on semiautomatic rifles have been around for years, but never received the floor votes needed to become law. Republicans in the minority – and sometimes moderate Democrats – have been resistant to passing sweeping gun legislation out of Olympia.

The legislative agenda was released just shy of the 10th anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which the perpetrator killed 20 children and six adults. In a statement, Alliance CEO Renee Hopkins said, “We are returning to Olympia with our boldest agenda to date.”

“The Sandy Hook shooter was armed with an assault rifle,” added Hopkins. “As were the perpetrators of each of the deadliest shootings since then, including Las Vegas, Orlando, Parkland, and Uvalde. Enough. It is long past time for legislation to keep these weapons of war out of our communities.”

Republican lawmakers have opposed the bulk of firearms measures, such as the law passed earlier this year banning the sale of high-capacity magazines, calling them unconstitutional or ineffective.

“All of this, it’s the chip-chip-chip away of that foundational right to protect yourself,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who has opposed efforts to restrict firearms.

Walsh noted that Washington’s state constitution has even stronger language than the federal constitution when it comes to protecting firearms ownership. He also predicted a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles could do poorly in state or federal courts.

The proposed rifle ban will be sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, who sponsored similar legislation in recent years. Her previous bill sought to ban the sale and distribution of AR-style assault rifles and included an extensive list of models subject to the prohibition, but appears to still allow for some small-caliber types.

This year’s proposal will keep the same definition of semiautomatic rifles as last year’s bill, Kuderer said in an interview: “We want to take what is really a military-style weapon off the streets.”

The bill would ban the sale or transfer of semiautomatic rifles that fit the description, but not ban the possession of those already owned. Kuderer added that there is talk of an additional proposal requiring registration of semiautomatic rifles remaining in the hands of civilians.

The latest proposals come after Democrats in the most recent legislative session passed a prohibition on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Gov. Inslee – also a Democrat – signed it into law, marking perhaps the most ambitious firearms restriction to ever move through the Legislature.

Additionally, the Alliance this year is seeking a bill to require a permit to purchase a firearm in the first place, and Smith wrote in an email that the governor is working with Democratic lawmakers on that one, too. Currently no permit is needed to purchase a firearm in Washington, though would-be buyers go through different types of background checks depending on the type of firearm they are seeking to purchase.

That permitting legislation could help Washington implement an existing law to conduct annual checks on pistol and semiautomatic rifle owners to make sure they’re still legally allowed to possess a firearm. Voters approved that law in 2018, but it remains to be implemented, as documented in reports by Crosscut.

Both the permitting legislation and a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles, which can fire a round every time the trigger is pulled, would mark a big shift for Washington.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Wednesday the first legal action against a firearms dealer for allegedly selling high-capacity magazines in violation of Washington’s new law.

That came as a sweep of investigators from the Attorney General’s office visited 25 gun retailers in an attempt to buy unlawful magazines across the state to make sure the law is being followed, according to a news release by the office. Most retailers were complying with the new law. Federal Way Discount Guns, which was named in the legal action, and an unnamed retailer didn’t comply. The investigation into the second retailer is still underway, according to the statement.

“Our sweep confirmed that the overwhelming majority of gun retailers in Washington are doing the right thing and complying with the law,” Ferguson said in the statement. “In contrast, Federal Way Discount Guns chose to violate a law that makes our communities safer. We will continue to proactively enforce this law, and take action against anyone who illegally sells high-capacity magazines.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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