As people continue to gather for political protests outside of the state Capitol, lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban the open carry of firearms on Capitol grounds and at other public demonstrations.
The Capitol has long been the site of armed and unarmed protests, but the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said that an increase in armed vigilantism is becoming an alarming trend.
Senate Bill 5038 would make it a gross misdemeanor to open carry firearms and other weapons at the state Capitol campus, legislative meetings and within 1,000 feet of a public demonstration.
Kuderer argued in front of the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday that her bill would ensure that weapons are not used to intimidate peaceful demonstrators, and would decrease the potential for lethal violence.
“The purpose of open carrying a weapon at a protest is to intimidate people,” Kuderer said. “It only serves to increase the risk of violence or death. And we’ve seen over the past several years armed groups engage with peaceful protestors, and sometimes with deadly consequences.”
According to Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis, there have been 149 unpermitted demonstrations or events at the Capitol since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in the spring.
In December, shots were fired at two clashes between demonstrators who were pro-former President Donald Trump and counterdemonstrators near the Capitol grounds, injuring one person.
State lawmakers announced they would increase security in Olympia after the armed insurrection at the U.S Capitol earlier this month. Gov. Jay Inslee, whose residence a mob breached the fence of the same day as the insurrection, authorized the National Guard to protect the Capitol building leading up to the inauguration.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Wooley, questioned whether the bill sacrifices Second Amendment rights in favor of First Amendment rights.
Kuderer responded that restrictions already exist to the Second Amendment, and that it is “a reasonable restriction that we’re putting on it just like we do other amendments.”
Washington is an open-carry state, but the Capitol would be added to a list of places where firearms are already banned, including jails, courtrooms, airports, schools and mental health facilities.
A bill to ban firearms at the campus was introduced in the House last year after more than a hundred protesters, some with guns, rallied at the Capitol apparently in support of state Rep. Matt Shea. Shea was suspended from the House Republican Caucus after an investigation commissioned by the state House concluded he had planned and engaged in domestic terrorism.
Tom Kwieciak of the National Rifle Association testified in opposition, saying that it is unconstitutional to “remove one person’s Second Amendment right solely on the basis of another person three football fields away exercising his or her First Amendment rights.”
“How could a person blocks away even have knowledge of a person demonstrating?” Kwieciak said.
The bill would prohibit anyone from knowingly possessing a weapon within 1,000 feet of a public demonstration, excluding people inside private buildings. Under the bill, a demonstration would require one or more people expressing views that have the effect, intent or likelihood of attracting a crowd. However, a person carrying a weapon would first have to be warned by a police officer to leave in order to be considered in violation.
Similar laws prohibiting guns at public demonstrations exist in Alabama, Maryland and Washington, D.C, the sponsors said.
Cheryl Selby, mayor of Olympia, said she first saw a problem with armed demonstrators when she was elected to the Olympia City Council and saw that the dias was made with bulletproof glass.
“I had no idea guns were allowed in City Hall, let alone council chambers,” Selby said.
She said that since her election, she has had to recess council meetings due to protesters and was once physically assaulted during a study session on the floor of the chambers.
“It haunts me that next time it could end differently if someone in the room has a gun strapped to their chest,” she said.