Politics & Government

Tough gun restrictions stall at state Capitol despite Democrats being in charge

Amid another school shooting roiling debate about gun control, Washington Democrats missed deadlines Wednesday to advance a slate of gun regulations.

Despite their hard-won majority in the state Legislature this session, push-back from centrist members of the party and a GOP minority nearly united in opposition to new limitations scuttled efforts to ban so-called “assault weapons,” including AR-15 rifles like the one allegedly used by a teenager Wednesday to kill 17 people at a Florida high school.

Legislation to restrict the weapons, including raising the age limit for purchase to 21 and increasing background checks for buyers, met the same fate. The age limit to buy a handgun in Washington is already 21.

Democratic state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a champion of both pieces of legislation, expressed disappointment in the Legislature, saying in an emailed statement, “The recent mass murder in Florida is another reminder of the devastation assault weapons cause.”

Ferguson said without the “political will” to ban assault weapons, the state should take his “compromise” approach and boost restrictions on the firearms, which he said are “11 times more likely to be used in a mass shooting than a handgun.”

“The Legislature refuses to pass this bill for reasons I cannot begin to understand,” Ferguson said.

Republicans and some Democrats hailed the stoppage of those measures as a success, saying the bills infringe on rights granted by the Second Amendment and put undue restrictions on legal gun owners. Many in Washington’s GOP have said gun regulations are ineffective and focus instead should be on boosting mental health efforts.

Hans Zeiger, a Republican from Puyallup, said Wednesday he believes the law requiring background checks on all sales and transfers of guns approved by voters in 2014 is stringent enough and should not be expanded.

“I think that’s the policy that the voters have asked for, and I don’t want to go beyond that in what I believe could be a problem for law-abiding firearms owners,” Zeiger said.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, a Republican from Snohomish, told reporters Thursday that lawmakers should give serious consideration to paying for more security at K-12 schools, such as armed guards and allowing certain staffers to carry weapons.

Other Republicans have pushed a bill to create an anonymous notification system for students concerned about an attack.

Even with deep divisions in the Legislature, some narrower gun regulation is still alive with bipartisan support.

The state Senate in January passed a ban on “bump stocks,” a device that can be used to modify a semi-automatic rifle so it can fire like a fully automatic weapon. The gunman in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting had bump stocks with him when he opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers and killed 58 people.

After the bill was amended to exclude bans on other trigger modifications, the measure won support from four Republicans, including Zeiger.

One bill approved nearly unanimously in the House on Wednesday puts new limits on concealed pistol licenses. For example, it expands the number of reasons a person can be deemed ineligible for a concealed permit — such as if they face a sexual-assault protection order.

Another bill passed by the Senate blocks people from having guns if they have harassment convictions on their record.

It’s unclear whether the gun regulations that have advanced will make it to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee. House leaders have not committed to giving the bump stock ban a vote, for example.

Some Democrats have celebrated the steps as progress, pointing out the party has only slim majorities in the House and Senate.

“When you look at the history of gun-safety measures, it’s been very bleak in legislative bodies,” Inslee said in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian. “So any time we can get legislators to exercise the courage necessary to pass common-sense measures, we ought to see to it that that happens.”

State Sen. Dean Takko of Longview is one Democrat that has resisted far-reaching firearm regulations. He said he supports more “reasonable gun bills” but “absolutely banning something” is too far for him.

Takko said his district is strongly pro-Second Amendment and that he might get 15 emails from constituents opposing gun regulation for every one anti-gun email he gets.

“Not all districts are the same,” Takko said. Referencing a neighborhood in Seattle, Takko added: “The area in Fremont is far different from the 19th district.”

Still, some Democrats lamented the lack of a stronger push on guns.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, urged residents to address gun regulation through the initiative process. Voters have approved several gun laws through the ballot in recent years.

State Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, said she supported a number of gun bills that are not likely to be approved by the Legislature, such as a measure that makes it a crime for gun owners to leave their firearm in a place where a child can use it if a kid successfully finds and discharges the weapon.

That bill is likely stalled in the House and probably won’t pass in 2018.

Senn also sponsored a measure that would allow the State Patrol to destroy guns that officers seize from crime scenes. Currently the patrol has to auction off or trade most guns.

The Associated Press found more than a dozen guns sold by law enforcement agencies in Washington since 2010 have later become evidence in new criminal investigations.

House Bill 1483 also failed to get a floor vote by a Wednesday deadline.

Senn said she was happy with the legislation that has been passed but said it is “definitely not enough.”

“I think there are a lot of more impactful bills that could save lives,” she said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein