Gun ban approval sighted; court block said likely

By Paul Gottlieb

Special to the Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — The state Legislature is likely to approve a gross misdemeanor ban on the manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of semiautomatic assault weapons, the 24th District’s three lawmakers predicted this week.

But House Bill 1240 likely will be struck down by the courts, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Port Angeles said Friday.

HB 1240 passed the House on March 8, a first for the proposal since 2017, when it was initially put forward at the request of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The bill focuses attention on mass shootings, defined in the bill as four or more deaths, the same definition used by the Gun Violence Archive at gunviolencearchive.org.

On Tuesday, Senate Law and Justice Committee members — citing the mass shooting Monday in Nashville, Tenn., where three adults and three children were killed — sent it to the Rules Committee. On Thursday, Rules referred it to the Senate floor for debate and a vote, which if approved also would be a first.

Eight-five percent of fatalities in mass shootings are caused by assault weapons, according to the bill. When the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban was in effect, mass shooting fatalities were 70 percent less likely to occur, according to the bill, reflecting a 2019 report in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery.

Nor are assault weapons well suited for self defense, hunting or sporting purposes, the bill says. The text and bill report are at leg.wa.gov.

Van De Wege, a Democrat, opposes HB 1240, unlike his district colleagues, Democrats Reps. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles and Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend.

Van De Wege, who said the legislation “goes well beyond what people would consider assault weapons,” said it was too general.

“I would be more comfortable with it if it wasn’t so broad,” he said. “I don’t think it makes for very good legislation at all.”

He saw little meaning in the strength of support for the ban, which has failed to advance in past legislative sessions.

“There’s less opposition because nobody really cares, regardless of what we do,” he said. “If it passes, the courts are going to rule against it, so there’s not big consternation around it.”

The bill defines assault weapons as “civilian versions of weapons created for the military and are designed to kill humans quickly and efficiently,” according to the text.

“For this reason the legislature finds that assault weapons are ‘like’ ‘M-16 rifles’ and thus are ‘weapons most useful in military service,’” the text continues.

The bill employs definition by example, saying the term “assault weapon” means specific firearms regardless of the manufacturer.

Weapons banned from future sale or manufacture include all AK-47s, AK-74s, AR-15s, AR-180s, M-16s, M4s, and 58 others weapons named in the bill and manufactured by makers including Smith & Wesson, Bushmaster and Heckler & Koch.

It covers semiautomatic rifles with overall lengths of less than 30 inches, conversion kits, and semiautomatic center-fire rifles with features such as detachable magazines, independent grips, folding stocks, silencers and shrouds.

Opposing senators at the executive session Tuesday unsuccessfully attempted to water down the restrictions with more than a dozen amendments including making violations a misdemeanor, removing named firearms from the definition, removing a section that begins, “the legislature finds and declares that gun violence is a threat to the public health and safety of Washingtonians,” and taking out a clause under which the law become effective immediately.

“I think there’s no good reason to putting on the emergency clause on this bill,” Republican Sen. Jim McCune said Tuesday at the Law and Justice Committee hearing.

“It’s going to damage our small business,” he added. “They can’t get their life and businesses in order. Most small businesses are probably going to go out of business.”

Democratic Chair Sen. Manka Dhingra responded by recalling the Nashville shooting during which the perpetrator was armed with three firearms, including an AR-15-style rifle.

“Since session has started, we have had such large numbers of mass shootings, including yesterday, so I’m going to ask for a no vote,” on removing the emergency clause, Dhingra said.

Chapman, a former Mill Creek police sergeant, U.S. Customs inspector and special Clallam County sheriff’s deputy, said public pressure for the ban is the difference between this legislative session and previous sessions.

Chapman owns “plenty” of firearms, he said.

“Even gun owners are saying we don’t need these weapons on the street,” Chapman said.

Tharinger said the weapons are not used for hunting, nor are they collector items.

“The mass shootings just continue,” he said. “They are killing people, and that’s what they’re designed to do, and we don’t need them on our streets and in our neighborhoods.”

But Van De Wege suggested that what the Legislature does will be largely irrelevant, that he has not paid attention to the bill and was not familiar until Friday with its contents.

“I’m engaged in a lot of things right now, and this bill is not one of them,” he said.

Washington would be the 10th state to ban assault weapons, joining California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

A federal appeals court will likely invalidate the ban in a ruling that would be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Van De Wege predicted.

In June, the court ruled in favor of a right to carry firearms in public in a majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Thomas said government must justify gun measures by demonstrating they are “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

In several cases following the ruling, the court struck down gun restrictions, citing the decision.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen “fundamentally changed Second Amendment doctrine and made it much harder for gun laws like assault weapons bans to survive,” Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and expert on gun policy, told Time magazine March 9 in an analysis of HB 1240.

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Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at cpaulgottlieb@gmail.com.

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