A trio of ambitious Democratic proposals to further regulate firearms have cleared a key early deadline to advance in the Washington Legislature. Those bills would prohibit the sale or transfer of most semiautomatic rifles, mandate gun-safety training through a permit-to-purchase program, and hold the firearms industry responsible in some cases of harm.
In Olympia, early February is often when the hopes of lawmakers and advocates start to be dashed, as bills that can’t get a public hearing and committee vote are generally set aside. That is often true for big firearms proposals, which can languish for years before getting a committee vote and sent on to the full House or Senate.
This year’s progress sets Democrats to potentially make some big moves on firearms regulations in this year’s 105-day legislative session – if they can keep the momentum going.
Perhaps most notable is House Bill 1240, which would prohibit the sale and distribution of AR-style assault rifles, an item long sought by progressives. The bill includes a series of guidelines about what types of rifles would be banned and a list of models subject to the measure. The proposal wouldn’t bar possession of such weapons by those who already own them, and it appears to allow some small-caliber semiautomatic rifles to still be sold in Washington.
Although similar bills have been proposed over the years, they did not advance even to the House floor. The House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee last month voted HB 1240 out of committee. In a text message, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island and chair of the committee, wrote that he didn’t ever remember a semiautomatic rifle ban getting a committee vote.
In an interview, Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds and sponsor of the bill, said there are probably a few reasons the proposal is moving forward this year, including popular support from Washington voters. A Crosscut/Elway Poll conducted in late December showed that 58% of voters surveyed statewide favored a ban on the sale or transfer of semiautomatic rifles, which are often used in high-profile mass shootings.
Another reason “of course is just the constant headline drumbeat of another shooting in another community,” said Peterson. “We’ve lived through Sandy Hook and we’ve lived through Parkland High School, we may be hitting a critical mass.”
Conservatives have decried the rifle ban and other restrictions as a violation of constitutional protections on guns – both in the U.S. and state constitutions. And with the U.S. Supreme Court now more firmly to the right, it remains to be seen what will happen to sweeping state regulations.
In a December interview, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, described the new proposals as “the chip-chip-chip away of that foundational right to protect yourself” and predicted the rifle ban might not survive a legal challenge.
Article I, Section 24 of the Washington Constitution focuses on the rights of individuals to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state. But other state gun restrictions have survived legal challenges. According to the Giffords Law Center, the Washington Supreme Court has rejected challenges to state firearms laws.
As proposals have gotten more ambitious in recent years – and as civil unrest and political extremism has become more visible – pockets of progressives are also showing concern about the prohibitions.
For example, the Puget Sound Socialist Rifle Association, which describes itself as an anti-fascist and anti-racist organization, testified last month against HB 1240 in a public hearing. The Socialist group joined more predictable opponents such as the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
In a statement, Aoibheann Cline, Washington state director for the NRA, criticized the proposed prohibition on rifles, saying they contribute to only a small number of violent crimes in the state.
“Banning semiautomatic rifles will not reduce violent crime or enhance public safety, but it will hinder self-defense rights of many law-abiding Americans,” Cline said in prepared remarks. “AR-15s are the most popular rifle in America and are used by millions for a variety of lawful purposes every day.”
Now that it has cleared a committee vote, HB 1240 – which was requested by Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson – can be brought to the House floor for debate. In an email, Ferguson spokesperson Brionna Aho wrote that “On HB 1240, we’re feeling confident that it will get a vote based on our conversations.”
While semiautomatic rifles are often the focus in the wake of high-profile shootings, the majority of gun incidents involve handguns. In Washington, handguns were the most common firearms listed in arrests in 2021 for murder, robbery, aggravated assault, kidnapping and other crimes, according to data by the Washington Association of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs.
Meanwhile, the bulk of gun deaths in Washington are due to suicide, and others to accidents.
Lawmakers are hoping to reduce gun deaths more broadly through House Bill 1143, which would create a permit-to-purchase program.
The proposal establishes requirements for the application, issuance and revocation of permits before someone can go to purchase a gun. To complete the application, the would-be buyer must be fingerprinted by local law enforcement and show a certificate from a certified gun-safety training course, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.
That would also include “live-fire training,” according to Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle and bill sponsor.
“We want to make sure people know how to use the gun as well, and have shot the gun,” she said.
Washington currently has a 10-day waiting period for buyers of pistols and semiautomatic rifles before they can receive their weapons, and HB 1143 would extend that requirement to long guns, such as shotguns or rifles operated with a bolt or lever. Supporters see the bill as one way to cut down on impulsive acts of violence.
The measure was requested by Inslee, and in a regularly scheduled news conference last week, the governor called it “a very effective provision.”
“It is the best thing that we have to reduce violence when it comes to gun safety,” Inslee said, adding: “Who can argue against having some modest degree of safety training?”
Officials have also said the bill could also help the state start to implement an existing law requiring annual checks on pistol and semiautomatic rifle owners to make sure they’re still legally eligible to possess a gun. In 2018, Washington voters approved that law as part of Initiative 1639, but it still hasn’t been put to use, as documented in articles by Crosscut.
Meanwhile, Ferguson and Inslee both requested another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 5078, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, to create liability for those in the firearms industry.
It would require members of the firearm industry to take precautions to make sure they aren’t selling to gun traffickers or straw purchasers – people who buy guns for others – according to a legislative analysis.
The proposal would, among other things, allow for lawsuits to be brought against the firearms industry by individuals who suffered harm.
Both HB 1143 and SB 5078 have gotten their first committee votes. But each one needs a second committee vote by Friday in order to reach the House and Senate floor for debate.
Even as those proposals advance, at least one other firearms bill appears to have stalled for the year.
House Bill 1178 would lift the statewide preemption on gun laws, which bars local governments from passing their own restrictions. That bill didn’t get a needed committee vote, and looks to be stalled for the year.
Bill sponsor Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, said that Democratic leadership prioritized other firearms proposals this year, because lawmakers can only spend so much time on them. That’s partly due to fierce Republican resistance to firearms legislation, which can eat up debate time on the House and Senate floor that is needed to pass other bills.
The mayors of seven cities – including Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby – signed a letter in support of Hackney’s bill.
“With the restoration of local authority, our cities would be able to build upon the progress made at the State level to address gun violence, by exploring policies that could prohibit guns on city property where children are present, like libraries, parks or community centers, prohibit people under the influence from carrying a handgun, and open the door to other innovative and common-sense ideas to protect our communities and prevent gun violence,” according to a copy of the letter provided by Harrell’s office.
The communities south of Seattle – which Hackney represents – bear a disproportionate amount of King County’s episodes of gun violence, he said, and those cities should be able to craft local laws.
“In a surge of violent crime that we are currently facing, I believe that my communities should be able to have gun laws that make sense for that community,” he said.