by Joseph O’Sullivan
The Washington Senate has passed a ban on the sale or transfer of assault-style semiautomatic rifles, joining House lawmakers in taking an ambitious step sought by Democrats to impose stricter regulations amid a continuing run of mass shootings and gun violence around the nation.
On Saturday, state Senate lawmakers approved House Bill 1240 on a largely party-line vote, 27-21. The bill is one of three key firearms proposals advancing this year. Because the bill was amended, it now heads back to the House for one more vote before going to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee, who requested the legislation along with Attorney General Bob Ferguson. After that House vote, which is expected to pass, the bill will become law as soon as Inslee signs it.
Sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, the bill prohibits the distribution, importation, manufacture or sale of AR-style assault rifles. It includes a list of the types of rifles and specific design guidelines – including AR-15s and AK-47s – that would be subject to the ban, according to a legislative analysis.
HB 1240 doesn’t ban the possession of semiautomatic rifles currently owned by individuals. And the bill will continue to allow the sale or transfer of some semiautomatic rifles that don’t fit lawmakers’ definition of “assault,” including some small-caliber types. A violation of the restrictions would result in a gross misdemeanor.
The emergency clause that allows the bill to take effect immediately upon signature also bars a potential referendum on the fall ballot, though Washington residents have repeatedly voted for tighter firearms laws.
In a speech Saturday on the Senate floor, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, recounted mass shootings from around the nation in which perpetrators have used semiautomatic rifles.
“We know it will save lives,” Kuderer said. “We’re here to say enough is enough.”
In Washington, tighter firearms laws have been popular with voters, who last decade approved three ballot measures by wide margins that imposed a host of new restrictions. In December, a Crosscut/Elway Poll showed that 58% of registered voters surveyed throughout the state supported a prohibition on the transfer or sale of semiautomatic rifles.
Republican lawmakers have opposed most new gun regulations, contending among other things that they violate the firearms clauses of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the state Constitution. On Saturday, they blasted HB 1240 for among other things being too broad.
During the debate, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, decried the inclusion of semiautomatic shotguns into the ban.
“They are a sporting weapon, to shoot birds, clay pigeons, self-defense,” said Schoesler, the former Republican majority leader. To include “a legitimate sporting product into this witch hunt is a very scary thought for legitimate sportsmen,” he added.
The rifle ban could have a broad impact on gun sales in Washington. In the first three months of this year, the federal government conducted more than 46,000 background checks for people attempting to buy long guns, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The data doesn’t break those purchases out by type, so that figure also includes rifles that aren’t semiautomatic, such as bolt- or lever-action rifles.
The rifle ban is one of several proposed firearms restrictions at this year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 23. Saturday’s debate played out as Democrats push for tighter firearms laws in response to gun violence that continues to take a toll across the United States.
Between 2019 and 2021, the number of children killed in shootings nationally increased 50%, according to an analysis of federal mortality data by Pew Research Center.
On Friday, Senate lawmakers passed a second key firearms proposal when they approved House Bill 1143. That bill began as an ambitious permit-to-purchase effort that expanded the 10-day waiting period currently required when buying a semiautomatic rifle to include all firearms purchases in the state. The final version – which must go back to the House for a final vote there – was narrowed down to the 10-day waiting period and the requirement that a would-be buyer present a training certificate from a firearms safety class.
That bill builds upon existing laws that require a training certificate and a 10-day wait to purchase a semiautomatic rifle, and process for checking purchasers of pistols that also can involve a waiting period.
The new laws come as the fight over gun regulations simmers throughout the court system. Some recent attempts by conservatives to get Washington state firearms laws tossed out by the courts have failed. But it remains to be seen what an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court will do with firearms restrictions.
Last June, the court struck down a New York law regarding concealed carry in a ruling known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. That decision came after another landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, known as the Heller decision.
The Bruen decision is already having ripple effects, according to a paper from The Duke Center for Firearms Law. In the Bruen ruling, the justices said that future challenges to the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment “should be evaluated solely with reference to text, history, and tradition,” according to the paper.
Courts around the nation have declared “more laws invalid under the Second Amendment in the eight months after Bruen than they did in the first few years after Heller,” according to the paper by Jake Charles, a professor who teaches firearms law.
It remains to be seen if the legal landscape changes in Washington, where state laws, some dating from the 19th century, impose some restrictions on firearms purchases.
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