Politics & Government

Under pressure from gun-rights group, Tacoma might drop its Taser ban

Tacoma’s stun-gun ban could soon be repealed, thanks to a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision and a letter threatening legal action from a gun-rights advocacy group.
Tacoma’s stun-gun ban could soon be repealed, thanks to a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision and a letter threatening legal action from a gun-rights advocacy group. AP fiel, 2013

In Tacoma, private citizens can’t legally buy, sell, own, make or carry a stun gun like a Taser. That might soon change.

City attorney Bill Fosbre last week wrote a memo to the city manager and City Council recommending that such weapons be decriminalized, saying that having or using them for self-defense is likely protected by the U.S. Constitution. A vote on a proposed repeal could come in June.

A gun-rights advocacy group prodded the city last month with a letter saying that Tacoma’s prohibition on Tasers and other stun guns violates the Second Amendment. The Firearms Policy Coalition threatened to sue if it wasn’t repealed.

Fosbre said city legal staff had been looking into the local law even before the letter arrived.

Officials with the University of Washington Tacoma and the Port of Tacoma recently approached the city about possibly equipping their security guards with stun guns, he said. Since those guards aren’t law enforcement, that’s not allowed under the current city code.

While city lawyers were researching whether an exception might be warranted, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that eroded local stun-gun bans, Fosbre said.

That opinion found that Tasers and other electroshock weapons are firearms and that their possession is protected by the Second Amendment. In the wake of that decision, a flurry of other municipalities have walked back stun-gun bans, including New Orleans and Baltimore County. A federal judge recently threw out New Jersey’s ban on the weapons.

Fosbre said it became clear that Tacoma’s ordinance was in legal jeopardy.

“We want to be proactive here. We want to abide by what we think our state Supreme Court would do in the same situation, so I’m going to recommend to the council to remove it,” he said last week.

The City Council approved the ban on stun guns — as well as butterfly knives and spiked-ball flails — in 2006 after neighborhood complaints about convenience stores selling swords, daggers and other weapons.

Fosbre said in his memo that Tacoma is among a handful of jurisdictions in the country that have laws against possessing stun guns. No nearby city has a similar law, he said. Tacoma’s law makes having a stun gun a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

The Sacramento-based Firearms Policy Coalition has successfully pressured other cities into dropping their bans.

Coalition president Brandon Combs said lawmakers in the Maryland cities of Westminster and Annapolis voted to repeal such laws this year after receiving letters from his group. Tacoma would represent its latest victory.

“We believe, and are arguing in court, that the Second Amendment extends to non-firearm arms, like stun guns,” Combs said. “People could have moral or religious reasons that they prefer to use a nonlethal weapon such as a Taser for self-defense rather than a gun, and also we want to protect everything that’s protected under the Bill of Rights, so we believe this is part of it.”

The group also has asked to have bans repealed in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, among other places, Combs said. And it’s suing the state of New York over the same issue.

In Tacoma, there haven’t been many charges filed against people for using or possessing stun guns, Fosbre said. Because weapons-possession charges aren’t tracked by type of weapon, Fosbre said he was unable to answer how many people have been charged under the city’s prohibition.

“Anecdotally, I am told it is very rare, and only gets charged when the person uses the device in a threatening manner against another person, but not in self-defense,” he said.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud