New Washington Gun Regulations Become Law, as Resistance Hangs Over Initiative 1639


OLYMPIA — A range of new Washington state gun laws take effect July, including key parts of Initiative 1639, the sweeping firearms measure approved last year that has sparked a charged debate over firearms, public safety and constitutional rights.

State lawmakers this year passed at least 10 firearms-related bills. They include a law banning undetectable "ghost guns" that takes effect Monday, as well as legislation intended to keep weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers and people with mental health issues and a history of violence.

One component of I-1639 raised the legal purchase age for semiautomatic rifles to 21, which became law in January. On Monday, other parts of the law, including enhanced background checks for buyers of semiautomatic rifles and a safe gun-storage provision, take effect.

Under that provision, owners could be charged under a crime of community endangerment if someone not allowed to possess a firearm -- like a child or a felon -- gains access to it and shows it publicly, shoots it or uses it for a crime.

Owners who keep their firearm in a lock box or safe, or who use a trigger lock, wouldn't be subject to charges if the gun was somehow accessed by a prohibited person. Nor would the law apply if a person barred from having a firearm obtains one due to unlawful entry, provided the owner reports the theft within five days of the time she or he knew or should have known it happened.

Nearly 60 percent of Washington voters approved I-1639. But the new law has so agitated gun-rights advocates and rural residents -- who see it as a violation of the Second Amendment -- that many county sheriffs and some city officials have publicly said they won't enforce it.

In the coming days and months, it will be seen whether those remarks were rhetoric. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has said officials could be civilly liable if they don't enforce the law and someone then sues their city or county.

Gun-rights advocates -- including the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation -- have filed a legal challenge against the initiative's age-restriction for semiautomatic rifles. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Tallman Trask, spokesman for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which led the I-1639 campaign, said he expects a new lawsuit challenging the parts of I-1639 that take effect Monday.

Even court rulings favoring I-1639 may not squelch discord by those who say it violates the Second Amendment. One Republican state legislator last week said he wouldn't agree with a state Supreme Court decision that upheld it.

And yet even amid such a deep partisan divide, lawmakers managed bipartisan agreement this year on one firearms proposal, House Bill 1949.

Sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and co-sponsored by Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, among others, it commissions a study to recommend how Washington could centralize its gun-purchase background-check system. The House and Senate unanimously approved HB 1949.

Its passage reflects a growing recognition by both lawmakers and law-enforcement groups that Washington needs to reassess a background-checks systems that has been called confusing and overly-complicated. Right now, the federal government conducts some checks, while individual law-enforcement jurisdictions perform other checks.

"The foundation of the entire system of gun-safety laws in this state is the background-check system," said Hansen. "If you get that right, you keep guns out of the hands of people who have no business having guns."

"If you get that wrong, there's not a lot else you can do in the system to fix it," he added.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said overhauling the current system -- which currently involves the federal government, and individual law-enforcement agencies across the state -- makes sense.

But Klippert, the ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee, said he remains opposed to I-1639, and even a court ruling upholding the law wouldn't satisfy his concerns.

"With the Washington state Supreme Court, they are human beings, and they make judgments and they can make mistakes, too," said Klippert, who is a deputy with the Benton County Sheriff's Office.

Both Hansen and Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who have expressed interest in running for attorney general next year, say the law will have to be followed.

"At the end of the day, it is going to come down to tragedies and lawsuits for people who are not following the law," said Dhingra.

Among other bills lawmakers passed this year was Senate Bill 5205, which changes the law affecting people who have been found incompetent to stand trial and subsequently released without being committed for treatment.

Under SB 5025, which takes effect July 28, if a court finds that such a person has a history of violence, that person is barred from having a gun until the court allows it.

The legislation closes a loophole that lawmakers inadvertently created a few years ago when making an unrelated change to the law, said Dhingra, the bill's sponsor.

Other legislation this year allows law enforcement to seize firearms under certain circumstances.

House Bill 1786, for instance, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, allows law-enforcement officers to take possession of a person's weapons while serving certain types of protection orders that include a firearms-surrender provision.

Another one sponsored by Jinkins, House Bill 1225, allows law-enforcement officers responding to domestic violence calls in some instances to temporarily seize a person's firearms if there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. Both HB 1786 and HB 1225 take effect July 28.

Another new law comes after the FBI last year notified Washington that the agency is ending its so-called "courtesy checks" that can let conceal-carry license holders bring home a handgun the same day they buy it. The FBI manages the nationwide database used for background checks.

House Bill 1465 changes state law, starting Monday, so conceal-carry license holders can't take home a handgun on the day of purchase. But the legislation would bring back those same-day purchases in June 2022, or six months after Washington has moved to a centralized background-check system.