Democrats advance assault weapons ban, new rules for gun buyers

The measures passed a House committee without Republican support. They are part of a broader agenda to curb gun violence.

OLYMPIA — A push to curb gun violence gained momentum Jan. 27 when a Democrat-controlled House committee advanced bills to ban the sale of assault weapons and require people to complete a safety training course before they are allowed to buy a firearm.

“While this bill will not cure the scourge that is happening across this country, it is part of the solution,” Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said before the committee vote on the assault weapons bill. “It will keep our communities safe.”

He has sponsored the legislation for seven years, driven by the memory of three people slain at a Mukilteo house party in 2016 by a man armed with an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon that would be banned under the bill.

“It’s hugely impactful in the 21st District I represent because of that shooting,” he said.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson started requesting the prohibition in 2017.

“For the first time in seven legislative sessions, our proposed ban on the sale of assault weapons passed out of committee today,” he said. “This is a very positive first step to help keep our communities safer. We have a long road to get this to the governor’s desk. We will push hard to make this happen, because this legislation will save lives.”

Peterson senses a different mood this session.

“The makeup of our caucus is more receptive to common sense gun legislation,” he said following the vote.

Mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs last year and in California this month are on his colleagues’ minds. Passage last year of a new state law banning high-capacity ammunition magazines showed they can pass tough policies.

The two measures passed Jan. 27 in the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee received no Republican votes.

Those bills, along with one allowing people to sue gun manufacturers that passed a Senate panel, are major pieces of the agenda Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Democratic lawmakers are pursuing this session.

There’s been a measurable rise in incidents involving guns in Washington since the start of the pandemic. Each year between 2017 and 2021, an average of 852 people were killed by firearms, rising to 896 in 2021, according to data compiled by Inslee’s staff.

House Bill 1240 bans the manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of an assault weapon. The bill covers several types of firearms including semiautomatic rifles and semiautomatic pistols that can take detachable magazines, or semiautomatic rifles with a fixed magazine with the capacity of more than 10 rounds. Any violation would constitute a gross misdemeanor.

Antique firearms are excluded. And licensed firearms dealers can still sell assault weapons to state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the military.

“We are a strong no on this policy,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, the committee’s ranking minority member. “Violence is a scourge and we need to do more to prevent violence in our society. But restricting the tool that violent minds use to make mayhem isn’t the right solution. The right solution is to try to reach the violent mind.”

House Bill 1143 requires a person obtain a permit from the Washington State Patrol to buy a gun. And it extends the waiting period to get the gun to 10 days.

To get a permit, a person must undergo a background check and provide proof they completed a certified firearms safety training program within the past five years. These programs must include live-fire training and discussion of subjects such as safe handling and secure storage of guns. Law enforcement officers and active-duty military members are exempt from having to complete the training.

Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, the committee chair, said the requirements are intended to prepare people for the “extraordinary responsibility” of owning a firearm.

“I think these are sensible safety precautions that we should do,” he said.

Walsh said the U.S. Constitution provides a person the right to keep and bear arms and a permit requirement impairs that right.

“This is a bright line for us,” he said. “We will not support impairment of foundational constitutional rights.”