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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: A blue state paradox

Washington keeps arming up amid licensing proposal

By Danny Westneat
Published: January 15, 2023, 6:03am

Blue state. Progressive state. Left Coast liberal state.

Washington’s got its reputation — earned more than ever the past few years, as voters here keep trending bluer.

But you can add this jarring one to the list: Heavily armed state.

“The way people here vote, you’d think they want to have nothing to do with guns. That couldn’t be further from the reality,” says Dave Workman, editor of a gun rights publication out of Bellevue called TheGunMag.com.

This past year, the number of concealed gun licenses awarded in Washington soared by more than 57,000 to about 700,000, according to data from the state Department of Licensing. That means that just shy of 12 percent of all the adults in Washington are packing (or at least are licensed to do so). This rate is 11th highest in the nation, according to a national roundup of gun data, behind mostly red states.

It’s part of an arming up that began more than a decade ago. In 2008, there were fewer than 175,000 officially packing. By 2012 it was 350,000, and now it has doubled again.

This represents a fraction of gun ownership, as you don’t need a permit to own a gun (only to have one concealed out in public). But concealed-carry licenses are about the only hard data for measuring the popularity of guns.

Around here they appear to be as hot as ever. That’s despite all the gun control laws (or maybe in reaction to them). Despite the bad publicity from mass shootings. Despite years of public health ad campaigns about the potential dangers of having guns in the home.

Nobody knows the reason for this surge. It could be there’s still some pandemic catch-up going on (as gun permitting offices were closed for a time). Workman pointed to the crime of the past few years combined with depleted police forces.

“I think a lot of people decided they’d better take more responsibility for their own safety,” he said.

Personally I am OK with rising figures for gun licensing. Yes, it signifies more guns in our already armed-to-the-hilt society. But it also means more people are willing to go in and get fingerprinted and background checked as part of the deal.

Washington lawmakers may be about to dramatically boost gun licensing. There’s a proposal, backed by Gov. Jay Inslee, that would require a permit in order to buy a gun. Under House Bill 1143 you’d have to get a training course in firearm safety and then go to a law enforcement office to get background checked before you could head out to Cabela’s or Wade’s Gun Shop.

“You need to get a license to drive a car in the state of Washington, you need to get a license to go fishing, it’s time that you get a license to make sure that you have safety training to purchase a gun in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

Of course there’s no constitutional right to drive or fish. A similar permit scheme in Oregon, approved in November, was put on hold temporarily by the courts over civil rights concerns.

Ten other states have had similar laws over the years, though. In 2018, researchers at Johns Hopkins compared gun violence in 136 urban counties (including four in our state) and concluded that these permits to purchase guns had cut gun homicides by 14 percent. How? By reducing the share of guns that fell into the wrong hands or onto the black market.

“It’s possible that the application process required to obtain a permit, which puts the purchaser directly in contact with law enforcement, acts to hold potential purchasers more accountable and reduces the likelihood of straw purchases made on behalf of prohibited persons,” the study said.

You can guess how this is going over with the gun lobby. The NRA already has sent out two action alerts against it, and the legislative session only started Monday.

So what kind of state are we really? Blue state? Heavily armed state?

Maybe this is an awkward answer, for all sides: I think it’s going to have to be both.

People love their guns, and there’s no sign that’s changing, even around here. I know plenty of armed liberals, too, so it’s not just a right-wing thing.

But look at it this way: If we’ve already got a record 700,000 adults who have willingly gone in to get fingerprinted and background checked because of their guns, without suffering any slight to their civil rights, then what’s really the big deal in having the rest get licensed too?