Opinion

Still time for Washington voters to fix gun age law

A mother and daughter visit a memorial site in Mukilteo after the July 2016 house party slaying of three young people by a 19-year-old with an assault weapon. In Washington, as in most states, he was able to buy and possess the weapon legally even though he’s not 21.
A mother and daughter visit a memorial site in Mukilteo after the July 2016 house party slaying of three young people by a 19-year-old with an assault weapon. In Washington, as in most states, he was able to buy and possess the weapon legally even though he’s not 21. AP file photo, 2016

The distance from the Everglades to the Evergreen State is about as far as you can get in the continental U.S., and yet one of the most unnerving aspects of last week’s school shooting was how close it felt.

The chilling scene could as easily have unfolded in Parkland, Washington, as Parkland, Florida.

Some factors that contributed to an unstable former student murdering 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are also present here. Among them: an absurd legal quirk that lets teens own assault weapons despite strict limits on them owning handguns.

A chance to fix Washington law slipped away last week due to inaction by legislators; they missed a deadline on a bill that sought to improve background checks, align assault-weapon and handgun rules, and establish 21 as the age standard for both

Now it’s up to voters to fill the leadership void, as they’ve done in the past while serving as catalysts of sensible state gun policy. Is it too much to hope a citizen may file an initiative petition as soon as this week?

In most states, as well as under federal firearms law, people 18 and older are allowed to possess military-style weapons. It’s a relic from the 1960s, when long guns were prized for hunting, handguns were singled out as instruments of violent crime and semi-automatic rifles had yet to surge in popularity and availability.

Under Florida law, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz was free to possess an AR-15 rifle; he removed it from a secure locker at the host home where he was staying, then used it to commit his Valentine’s Day rampage.

Likewise, under Washington law, 19-year-old Allen Ivanov was free to go to a Cabela’s store and buy an assault rifle and large-capacity magazine; he used it later the same day in 2016 to kill three teens at a Mukilteo house party.

A person must be 21 to buy alcohol or marijuana in Washington; that age also must be attained to drive a school bus or limousine. It also should apply to anyone who wants to buy an assault weapon. To permit anything less is inexplicable, lackadaisical and reckless.

A compelling case could be made that Washington should ban civilians of any age from owning these killing machines — aka “weapons of war,” according to a federal appeals court last year that ruled assault weapons aren’t protected by the Second Amendment.

At a minimum, they should be kept from adolescent gun fanciers who are still developing sound judgment and self control.

Even some staunch Second Amendment defenders are coming around to that logic, including Jason Cazes, a Bellevue gun shop owner for whom last week’s Florida carnage triggered an epiphany. “The kids, the senselessness of it, the evil, what’s in this world,” Cazes told a Q13 Fox reporter. “It makes sense to me to bump it to 21 like handguns.”

Legislators didn’t have the will to change the law this year, though there’s still a chance for a modest achievement if they ban “bump stocks” — devices that modify semi-automatic rifles to fire with nearly the same rapidity as illegal automatic-style weapons.

It doesn’t have to end there. A path to stronger assault-weapon age limits and background checks remains open, if tenacious gun-safety champions step forward. It’s the same path that led to a successful initiative campaign two years ago.

On Feb. 18, 2016, after the Legislature failed to act, a Bonney Lake woman filed an “extreme risk order” initiative with the state. I-1491 aimed to let families ask judges to temporarily withhold firearms from loved ones who are mentally ill, violent or behaving erratically. Advocates rallied to collect enough signatures for the November ballot, where it won overwhelming approval.

Repeating that formula in 2018 won’t be easy. But as Teddy Roosevelt said, nothing in the world “worth having or worth doing” ever is.

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