YELM, Thurston County — The talk at the Yelm Prairie Christian Center was of frustration and anger — and of what to do about Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
So intense is the distress over new firearms regulations in the state and Ferguson’s support of them that a group of 35 or so came together to discuss what many saw as a constructive next step: Go to court to file citizen complaints against Ferguson or maybe even attempt a citizen’s arrest of him.
Many wore insignia of the Washington Three Percenters — a group whose website says its goal is to “utilize the fail safes put in place by our founders to reign (SIC) in an overreaching government and push back against tyranny.”
The meeting reflected the simmering discontent among gun-rights advocates for a slew of new restrictions approved in recent years by Washington’s voters and lawmakers. Lawmakers, judges and elected officials, they say, are violating their Second Amendment rights.
Much of the night’s discussion focused on Initiative 1639, a measure broadly approved last year by nearly 60% of Washington voters, but one that also has inspired enough agitation to lead many county sheriffs to say they won’t enforce it.
Should legal efforts fail to halt the new gun laws, several in the crowd already are pondering drastic action against a government they view as stacked against them.
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza and County Commissioner Gary Edwards, on hand to answer questions, said they didn’t like the many gun restrictions passed in recent years, either. And they sympathized with the objections to red flag laws.
Such statutes allow law enforcement to seize weapons from people in certain situations, such as protection orders in cases of domestic violence or people considered an extreme risk to themselves or others. Those laws were highlighted in the past week, when The New York Times reported that Washington officials last month used one such law to seize a cache of weapons from a man they believed to a leader of the violent neo-Nazi group known as the Atomwaffen Division.
But at the meeting, Snaza and Edwards urged those gathered to have patience and to not take matters into their own hands. Snaza was asked if he’d sanction the formation of a militia for Thurston County.
A militia would have have to be sworn in by him, Snaza said, and he wouldn’t permit that at this time.
In an interview Friday, Snaza said that right now, “You know as well as I do, every sheriff is probably posed with questions like that.”
Talk of treason
I-1639 raised the legal age for buying semi-automatic rifles to 21, from 18, and requires enhanced background checks to buy those weapons.
Among other things, the law also created gross misdemeanor and felony classes for a new crime if someone not allowed to access a firearm — such as a felon or child — gets hold of one and displays it in public, fires it or uses it while committing a crime.
I-1639 passed with majorities in 14 counties, including King, Snohomish, Pierce and Thurston. But it was opposed by law-enforcement groups and remains unpopular in rural Washington and among gun-rights supporters.
Since it passed, the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation have sued to block it, a lawsuit that is ongoing.
Ferguson, who has supported stronger regulations, has become a focus of ire among gun-rights advocates. Judges have recently dismissed similar citizen complaints including one in Yakima County accusing him of criminal wrongdoing, according to news reports and the Attorney General’s Office.
Scott Bannister, who organized the meeting in Yelm, said he was working with Matt Marshall of Washington Three Percenters, which has been heavily focused on gun rights, to file more citizen complaints early next month.
The complaints allege that by infringing on people’s right to bear arms, Ferguson has committed misdemeanors such as official misconduct, and failure of duty by a public officer.
“I want to see him go to prison for treason,” said Bannister, a retiree and veteran who is assembling the citizen complaints. “But I wanted the backing of the sheriff, because I don’t want to get shot by the state police.”
Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho declined to comment on the citizen complaints or the prospect of a citizen’s arrest.
In a statement, Ferguson said he respects residents’ right to “express their disagreement with a decision by nearly 60% of Washingtonians to adopt common sense gun reform.”
“That said, their actions won’t deter me from doing my job and defending the will of the people,” Ferguson added in prepared remarks.
The concept of a citizen’s arrest is a hand-me-down from England and the use of common law, used generally before the existence of organized police departments, according to Mary Fan, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law.
Back then, “Your typical citizen’s arrest is, there’s no police officer, and one person hit another person with their carriage,” said Fan, a former prosecutor who teaches criminal law.
A court rule purportedly allows for citizens to file their own complaints, according to Pam Loginsky of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. But in an email, Loginsky wrote that she believes the rule is actually unconstitutional.
Those gathered also talked about what they might do if their legal challenges were unsuccessful.
“At one point, it’s going to be push comes to shove, where we say these people need to be held accountable, and not just in the voting, because people are brainwashed now,” said one person in the crowd, adding later: “It’s starting to feel like all three branches are being stacked against us.”
Edwards, himself a former Thurston County sheriff, said to wait to see how the courts rule on the challenges.
“We have to let it play out as best we can,” said Edwards. “Because, you know, some folks have a romantic view of the Revolution, for example, but I can tell you it’s not a very romantic feel. It’ll be the pits if it happens.”
The commissioner said gun-rights supporters in Washington are seeing the same types of resistance that he believes President Donald Trump has faced in office.
But, “If we’re lucky, the president will get the courts stacked right,” Edwards added later. “If we’re not lucky, we might have a revolution.”