Washington’s gun initiative would toughen background checks for semiautomatic rifles
When Washington voters approved Initiative 1639 last year, they embraced a key principle of responsible firearm ownership: secure storage to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands.
In addition to raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle to 21, adopting stronger background checks and other regulations, I-1639 created a new chapter in Washington law, “unsafe storage of a firearm,” which went into effect in July.
It’s a sensible tool to keep criminals, children and adolescents — as well as others who may be impulsive or untrained in proper gun use — from harming themselves or others.
College students also need to store weapons securely, given the volatile mix of tight living quarters, proximity to strangers, binge drinking, suicide risk and other mental health issues. Washington’s public university system is wise to restrict firearm possession on campus, including in student housing.
How ironic and disappointing, then, that Washington State University welcomed students back to school this week without its traditional accommodation for safe gun storage.
“While we feel like our weapons storage has been a positive service, state law prevents us from continuing this service,” according to a notice on the WSU Police Facebook page.
Will anyone be surprised if students end up stashing firearms in dorm room closets, under beds or in trunks of cars? One can only hope it doesn’t result in injury, or worse.
For more than three decades students could voluntarily check their guns with WSU police, locked up but accessible for off-campus use. This is the Palouse, after all, and a weekend hunting trip or target practice outing is well within the rights of young adults who know how to handle a shotgun or range pistol.
But citing recent changes to Washington law, assistant WSU police chief Steve Hansen said officers would now have to do a full background screening and mental health evaluation each time they transfer a gun to a student.
The interpretation, he said, came from the state Attorney General’s office in conjunction with the Washington State Patrol. (We asked for a copy from the AG’s office but a spokeswoman told us advisory opinions issued at an agency’s request are privileged.)
The policy change is not only detrimental to student gun owners, it’s also likely to inflame bad feelings that already burn hot east of the Cascades. While I-1639 passed on the strength of urban Puget Sound voters, it failed in all but two counties in Eastern Washington. And some rural law enforcement chiefs have threatened not to enforce the new law, saying it’s unconstitutional.
By abdicating its gun storage tradition, WSU stands in contrast to the University of Washington. UW says it’s continuing its long-time service on the Seattle campus, though students who could previously pick up their guns immediately now must wait up to three business days. “We continue to balance the gun storage needs of our UW Seattle students and the changes in the law related to the release of stored firearms,” Maj. Steve Rittereiser told us by email.
The practice varies at other state universities. The UW’s Tacoma campus, for example, has never offered the service, while Eastern Washington University discontinued it in 2015 because police had liability concerns and couldn’t keep up with a growing volume of requests.
But at WSU, safe storage has long helped promote responsible gun ownership among rural students who don’t take the Second Amendment lightly. If Huskies can check their guns on campus, Cougs should be able to do the same.
State legislators, for their part, may need to revisit the law with an eye for unintended consequences and an ear for concerns expressed on both sides of the state.
Yes, a solid majority of Washington voters supported a good gun-reform package last year. But nobody ever said it was perfect.