Legal challenges have created an uncertain future for Washington’s new gun control laws enacted by the passage of Initiative 1639.
But the one thing that is certain is the law went into effect July 1 and for now, love it or hate it, it’s here.
“What do you do? You have to follow the law,” said Joe Rosbach, owner of Joe’s Outdoor Sport Shop, Inc. in Chehalis.
The new gun restrictions have been and continue to be a source of conversation and debate for customers at Rosbach’s shop at the Lewis County Mall. He said one of the biggest impacts from the new law for him was actually in June, when he saw an uptick in normal sales. He thinks a lot of people made purchases in anticipation of the new rules and now that July 1 has come and gone, sales seem a little slower.
“I think the majority of the people who knew it was coming took advantage and got what they wanted before July 1,” Rosbach said.
I-1639 was passed by Washington voters in November 2018. Some of the provisions of I-1639 went into effect Jan. 1 while the rest of the provisions went into effect July 1. The initiative primarily covered the issue of the purchase, possession and sale of semiautomatic rifles or semiautomatic assault rifles. Some of the provisions in the new law include: changing the legal age to purchase semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21; requiring enhanced background checks for sales or transfers of semiautomatic weapons; creating penalties for gun owners whose guns are not securely stored and are used by a prohibited person in a crime; requiring firearms training for anyone purchasing a semiautomatic weapon; and creating requirements for how sellers of guns must notify customers of these changes.
Almost immediately after its passage, I-1639 was challenged by a lawsuit filed by the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation. But the initiative was passed by a more than 60 percent majority of Washington voters, making it presumed constitutional unless proven otherwise. So, the law stands for now and opponents say even if they are able to prove it is unconstitutional, that day is still far off.
“With the lawsuit, it’s going to be 24 to 36 months away and in the interim all of the gun shops and consumers will have to deal with this thing,” said Andy Fleming, owner of East County Guns in Centralia.
Dusty Breen, Special Services Chief with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, said that attempting to interpret the more than 40-page document that covers several provisions has been one of the hardest things for gun shop owners, local law enforcement and others affected by the changes. He said he has encountered a lot of misconceptions from the public about what the law does and does not actually say. For instance, Breen noted that another gun control law, the Fix NICS Act, also went into effect on July 1 and he has heard many people erroneously attribute its provisions to I-1639. That federal law, signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 23, 2018, tightens regulations on background checks and applies penalties for not reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
“There’s still a lot of confusion by the general public about this,” Breen said.
The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that about 70 percent of Lewis County did not vote for I-1639. Breen said that may be, at least in part because semi-automatic rifles are a rather common type of gun. The definition of a SAR is any rifle that is fed from a tube or magazine and each trigger pull feeds one round. Fleming said he would guess half of Washington’s residents own a semi-automatic rifle. Rosbach said he did not have an estimate on how many of these guns he sells but agreed that some of the models are extremely common.
“Lots of hunting rifles are semi-automatic and even your Ruger 10/22, one of the best-selling guns of all time, is,” Rosbach said. “It’s very safe to say a lot of people own semi-automatic rifles.”
Fleming lobbied against the initiative when it was on the ballot and contends it is riddled with problems and is unconstitutional because the initiative regarded multiple topics as opposed to one as required by Washington law.
“We’ve owned (this business) since 2001 and this is the most restrictive and the most problematic restrictions we’ve faced,” Fleming said. “We made the decision to open a location in Idaho to deal with the financial impact. I’ve got employees I need to be able to pay. I’ve got 12 families with kids and wives and medical and dental to pay for and this will be a huge financial impact.”
The impact will likely be felt by local law enforcement as well. Prior to the passage of I-1639, background checks for semi-automatic rifles were done by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Now, those checks are done by local law enforcement in the area where gun purchasers live, rather than where the guns are purchased. Breen said in 2018, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office did 2,158 background checks regarding the transfer of pistols. The Washington Association of Sheriff’s & Police Chiefs (WSPAC) estimates there are 20-30 percent more semiautomatic rifles purchased each year than pistols, so Breen believes they could be facing an additional 2,500 or so background checks this year with no extra money for the staffing to do them.
Fleming said one provision in the initiative he is especially concerned with has to do with a clarification that has been requested by the Department of Licensing and WASPC about whether or not the new law requires a consumer to be in possession concealed weapons permit for all sales. Fleming believes it is very likely the clarification will come back that the permit will be required, which would affect about 40 percent of his customers. He said right now, it’s a six-week minimum wait and he expects wait times to skyrocket if such a requirement were in effect.
“Anybody in Washington that does not have a concealed weapons permit should go and get that done,” Fleming said. “If you wait until into August and September, the backlogs and wait times are just going to go up.”
The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office is offering citizens firearm class July 20, which will cover the law changes that went into effect July 1. The class is only required for those wanting to purchase semiautomatic rifles. If you already own a semiautomatic rifle, no certificate is needed. Breen said about 200 of the 400 spots were filled as of last week.
Breen said he has had a number of questions from citizens about why the class is open to 16-year-olds when one of the provisions of I-1639 raised the age for purchasing semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21. He explained that the certificate earned at the class, which is required for semiautomatic rifle purchases in Washington, is good for 5 years, which means a 16-year-old who knows they may want to purchase a semiautomatic rifle when they turn 21 could get their certificate now and be ready.
“We’re big on responsible firearm ownership at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and this is just one of the ways we’re addressing that,” Breen said.
All semiautomatic rifle purchases in Washington include a $18 fee to the Department of Licensing that is planned to be used to develop a consumer education program. Breen said he hopes it will become something akin to the Washington Voter Education resources offered through the Secretary of State office. But Breen said it is likely there will be other citizens firearm class opportunities in the future.
“As it is, we do anticipate holding more of these in the future but how often we do not know yet,” Breen said.