Sales at Cowlitz County gun shop skyrocket after brief legal window opens to buy higher-capacity magazines in Washington 


For 88 minutes Monday, high-capacity magazines flew off the shelves at Kelso’s Gator’s Custom Guns after a Cowlitz County judge ruled unconstitutional the state’s ban on selling ammunition cartridges holding more than 10 rounds.

Gator’s Custom Guns owner Wally Wentz said four employees rang up customers at once, with lines up to 10-people deep and the parking lot full, on a day the shop is usually closed; Wentz opened doors once the ruling was announced.

“People opined with their pocketbooks, that’s for sure,” he said.

Monday buyers included Longview City Councilman Erik Halvorson and Kelso City Councilman Keenan Harvey. The latter said he grabbed 17 large-capacity magazines and snapped a photo of smiling Halvorson outside the shop holding his Gator’s merch.

Despite the ban that had been in place since 2022, Gator’s continued to sell the high-capacity cartridges, prompting the state Attorney General’s Office to seek a judicial declaration that the store’s actions were illegal under the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Instead, Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Gary Bashor found the ban violated both the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment and a section in the Washington Constitution and immediately lifted the ban.

But the window was brief. Almost immediately after Bashor released his ruling that the Attorney General’s Office lawsuit against Gator’s couldn’t proceed, the state’s top prosecutor requested in an emergency motion that the Washington Supreme Court pause the ruling, reinstating the ban, until higher courts may consider the matter.

By 4:30 p.m. Washington Supreme Court Commissioner Michael E. Johnston granted the request, and cash registers at Gator’s quitted.

By the time Jeremiah Wallace arrived at the Allen Street shop the next afternoon, the 42-year-old from Toledo couldn’t buy the ammo he was looking for. It was clear to him and Steve Oats, a 69-year-old Army veteran and NRA member from Longview, that the roughly 2-year-old ban had not been allowed.

“They violated all of our constitutional rights,” Wallace said.

Whether the ban will be lifted again is still up in the air; the state Supreme Court is scheduled to review its pause, or in legal parlance a “stay,” on April 17.

How did we get here?

A 2022 state law made it illegal to sell magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, which can be used for weapons from handguns to rifles.

Before the ban took effect, Wentz said up to 40% of his sales came from those higher-capacity mags.

The store filed suit in Cowlitz County Superior Court in August, seeking a judgment against the state that would declare the ban unconstitutional under the Washington and U.S. Constitution. The shop’s lawyers argued the state’s investigation into whether Gator’s was selling the ammunition after the ban hurt the small, family-owned business. The suit alleges the state has no oversight over whether Gator’s sold large-capacity magazines to out-of-state customers, and claims providing a list of those customers and details on the transactions would require reviewing thousands of pages of records and cost nearly $30,000.

The state countersued the next month, alleging Gator’s sold such high-capacity cartridges to undercover state employees after the ban on two occasions in May, including a magazine with the capacity to hold 40 rounds. The state alleges the shop offered as many as 11,400 high-capacity magazines to the public after the ban.

The arguments

The restrictions of such large-capacity magazines protect victims of mass shootings in which such ammunition is often used, asserts the state’s lawsuit and a statement from the Attorney General released after Bashor’s ruling.

But Bashor says the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to protect gun rights even after the prevalence of mass shootings.

“Gun violence was on the table,” he writes, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of using guns for protection inside homes in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller and using guns for self-defense outside the home in 2021’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. So, those same rulings apply to Washington’s ban of high-capacity magazines.

Bashor’s ruling echoes a current trend at the Supreme Court, where a majority of Republican-appointed justices base their opinions on “originalism,” which says statutes and amendments need to be interpreted in the way they were understood at the time they were written.

He said the country’s Founding Fathers didn’t intend to limit gun ownership because there were no laws at the time of the Second Amendment’s adoption analogous to the state’s current ban on high-capacity magazines.

While such ammunition didn’t exist at the time, the founders, Bashor posits, anticipated technological advances, which is why they added the patent and copyright clause in the Constitution.

“Many were inventors,” he noted in his 55-page ruling. Thus, the right to bear arms is uninfringeable even as technology alters the weapons.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is also running for governor in November, released a statement after Bashor’s ruling, calling the Cowlitz County judge’s viewpoint “incorrect.”

“Every court in Washington and across the country to consider challenges to a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines under the U.S. or Washington Constitution has either rejected that challenge or been overruled,” he writes. “This law is constitutional. It is also essential to addressing mass shootings in our communities. This law saves lives, and I will continue to defend it.”

In pausing Bashor’s ruling, Johnston said that “the debatable nature” and “public safety issues” of the case require more review by the Washington State Supreme Court.