Just months ago, advocates of stricter gun laws hailed the election victory of expanded gun-purchase background checks as momentum to push more gun laws through the Capitol. But neither they nor gun-rights supporters have had much success in pushing their proposals.
OLYMPIA — Just a few months ago, advocates of stricter gun laws hailed the election victory of expanded gun-purchase background checks as momentum to come to the Capitol and push through more gun laws.
At the same time, opponents of Initiative 594, which expanded background checks to private sales like some of those found online or at gun shows, planned their own legislative actions to weaken or roll back the initiative.
But as the deadline came and went this week for non-budget bills to pass through either the state House or Senate, almost all those proposals appear to have died. Many never even got a public hearing in committee.
The state of play left gun-regulation advocates finding solace in the Legislature’s devotion this session to increased mental-health funding, and in one bipartisan gun-related bill that passed the Senate. That bill would allow a family or household member to be notified when law enforcement returns a gun to an individual.
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Geoff Potter, spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which spearheaded the I-594 campaign, called that bill a bright spot.
Other proposals trumpeted by the alliance and its associated group, the Center for Gun Responsibility, went nowhere.
One that would have made it a crime to leave or store a loaded gun where a child could get access, didn’t get a public hearing.
Another would haven given authorities a path to take guns from people exhibiting dangerous symptoms of mental illness. That bill, known as the extreme-risk protective order, got a hearing in the House but stopped before it could get a vote on the House floor.
The bill didn’t just die along party lines. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, was one of the opponents, saying the focus should be on the mental-health aspect.
“If someone’s an extreme risk to themselves or others, they should be committed and they should be evaluated and there should be some form of action taken,” said Sullivan.
Potter noted that the new proposals in the Legislature often take years to gain attention, and so a public hearing on the extreme-risk protective order bill was a positive step.
“We certainly would have liked to see further movement,” said Potter, “but we feel good about what was accomplished and did happen.”
The alliance shouldn’t expect a welcoming committee, of course, from gun-rights advocates.
Lawmakers backing gun rights take issue with language in I-594 that they say criminalizes gun owners who hand firearms to each other, like at a firearms-training class or between friends.
The measure’s supporters have argued that the language doesn’t criminalize gun owners, and the Washington State Patrol has declined to arrest people momentarily handing each other guns at anti-I-594 demonstrations at the Capitol.
Nonetheless, several Republican legislators submitted bills this year to clarify the language to make sure certain people transferring weapons — like security guards, law-enforcement officers, or those giving a weapon to a museum for an exhibit — aren’t technically breaking the law.
House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Laurie Jinkins described those responses to I-594 as “a solution in search of a problem” and didn’t give those bills public hearings.
Some of those bills received hearings in the GOP-controlled Senate, but didn’t get voted out of the chamber.
Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who sponsored the House version of the extreme-risk protective order, says she plans to work on it again next year.
If there’s time, she may schedule a hearing for the bill that would punish those who leave a firearm where children can access it, even though it wouldn’t get a floor vote this year.
Alan Gottlieb of the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, says gun-regulation advocates need to make concessions before any compromise can be had on new gun laws.
“When they are willing to fix all the I-594 problems first, we can talk about common ground,” Gottlieb wrote in an email.
Now the fight to weaken or repeal I-594 shifts to the courts, where Gottlieb’s Second Amendment Foundation and other groups in December filed a federal lawsuit to block the new law. Last month, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility petitioned to intervene in the suit to help defend I-594.
Adina Hicks, executive director of Protect Our Gun Rights, which has vowed to fight I-594 and other gun regulations, did not respond to requests for comment.
Other Republican bills this session proposed to weaken I-594, or to send a repeal vote back to the same electorate that approved the initiative in November.
That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, says constituents have called, emailed and Facebook-messaged him their disappointment over I-594.
“I believe it’s frustrating to my constituents,” said Hunt, who also sponsored a bill to encourage the production in Washington state of ammunition and firearms parts.
“There’s a mentality difference between those that live in the city versus those who live in rural” areas, he added.
Neither the I-594 repeal bills nor his other proposal received a public hearing, much less a floor vote.
Potter, of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, dismissed those efforts.
“Reopening the conversations that voters resolved last year isn’t a good use of lawmakers’ time,” he said.
As lawmakers attempt to write a budget that provides court-mandated education funding, as well as negotiate a transportation package and new marijuana rules, the debate over firearms may well be done for the session.
“There were some good efforts under way this year to improve gun safety in Washington, but it’s also a year with a lot of heavy lifts for the Legislature,” wrote Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, in an email. “We always hope to see progress on this, but know it’s an issue that may have to wait for next year.”