The new legislative session in Washington has revived debates about several contentious issues: property rights, water rights and development in rural areas, a possible carbon tax and, this week, limitations on the ownership of guns and gun accessories.
On Monday, the Senate Law and Justice Committee, with Democrats back in the majority, held hearings on several gun control bills.
The hearings drew overflow crowds.
One bill, inspired by the October mass shooting in Las Vegas, would ban so-called bump stocks. Those are devices attached to a weapon that allow it to fire more rapidly than it normally would. At least one bumpstock was used during the Las Vegas shooting. The bill is sponsored by Senator Kevin Van De Wege. He’s a Democrat from Sequim who testified before the Law and Justice Committee.
“I’m a lifetime NRA member and consider myself a pretty big defender of the Second Amendment and have a lot of friends and co-workers who are NRA members and gun enthusiasts. I’ve talked to a lot of them about it and we all agree that this is something that shouldn’t be allowed,” Van De Wege said.
The hearing included emotional stories from relatives of people shot in Las Vegas and elsewhere. They included Zach Elmore from Seattle. His sister was one of the gunshot victims in Nevada.
“My mom and I hopped on a plane the next day to Las Vegas and we were greeted by Alicia’s husband, Nick, who still had blood on his hands from the night before. The shirt that he used to try to stop her bleeding was in a bag on the floor," Elmore said. "Seeing my sister motionless from a gunshot wound and surgery to check for organ damage is something I wish nobody had to experience. It’s past time that we ban these conversion kits that allow these assault weapons to become even more dangerous.”
Gun owners acknowledged the tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting. But several argued that acting emotionally to approve legislation won’t be effective or fair. Dave Westhaver came from Bellevue to make that point.
“The criminals aren’t going to be penalized by these bills. They’re going to make criminals out of the law-abiding gun owners," Westhaver said. "If you really wanted to make an impact on firearm safety, why don’t you start addressing the mental health issues and making mental health much more accessible to the general public in state-funded programs. When three-quarters of the firearm deaths are suicide, I think that would be a much more effective process.”
Others believe the bump stock ban will be interpreted more liberally to include all types of semi-automatic weapons. Alan Gottlieb from the group Citizens for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, argued bump stocks are misunderstood.
“These devices do not turn a semi-automatic firearm into a machine gun. In fact, sometimes they lower the rate of firepower and accuracy, as happened to the horrible shooter in Las Vegas, whose bump stocks jammed the firearms and, as a result, he had to put them down and pick up other guns to fire with,” Gottlieb said.
The day after that hearing, the Senate Law and Justice Committee brought the bill up for a vote. Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) tried to play defense.
“Nobody wants any part of mass shootings," Padden said. "The difference in opinion is how to address these. We feel it’s better addressed normally by mental health, rather than banning weapons.”
He suggested an amendment that would narrow the definition of a bump stock, among other things.
The committee chair, Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), said he was open to changing some of the wording in the bill. But, for now, he said it was important to move ahead.
“We have a very long-standing law in our state against fully-automatic weapons and the effect of these devices is essentially to make semi-automatic weapons the same as a fully-automatic weapon. So I’m going to ask for a no vote.”
Despite the quick vote to move the bill out of committee, it faces an uncertain future, as Austin Jenkins from the Northwest News Network has reported.
Among the other gun bills that received hearings on Monday:
One would change the background check requirements for those buying semi-automatic weapons or guns with high capacity magazines so that they match the requirements for handguns. The bill is sponsored by Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle).
“Bringing background checks related to assault weapons into conformity with those we afford to pistols and handguns makes absolute sense. And it’s supported in polling both in this state and nationally,” Frockt said.
The bill was supported by Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Adam Cornell, who prosecuted a case involving a teenager who killed three friends in Mukilteo in 2016.
“It should not have been so easy for this angry 19-year-old to purchase an assault rifle, an assault rifle that he didn’t intend to use for hunting animals. It was an assault rifle that he used with the intention of hunting humans and that’s exactly what he did,” Cornell said.
Another bill would ban high capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition, with certain exceptions. Opponents argue that would apply to much of the ammunition sold today.
Another bill would require gun owners to safely store their firearms so that children and those who cannot legally possess weapons can’t get to them. Dr. Thatcher Felt, a pediatrician from the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Grandview, says he worries about the safety of many of his young patients.
“Fabian is a delightful first grader that I’ve followed since birth. At his last visit, I asked Fabian, ‘Is there a gun in your house?’ Surprisingly, his answer was yes," Felt said. "This sweet seven-year-old knew that he had found a gun in the upstairs closet and he knew that the bullets were on the top shelf. This gun was not secured. Fabian’s inherent curiosity could have cost him his life.”
But Jane Mellhans from Pierce County argued requiring firearms to be secured in locked places can be dangerous. She told a story about using a weapon to fight off two intruders in her house.
“It is a woman’s right to own firearms for personal protection. It levels the fight between her and an attacker, in my case, two. It gives her a fighting chance to survive. When seconds count and moments matter, a locked firearm or magazine is helpless in a personal defense situation,” she said.
The final gun bill would repeal the state law that gives state gun laws authority over local firearms regulations. That would allow local governments to approve their own gun ordinances.
Our thanks to TVW for providing the audio in this story.