Improving Gun Safety in Washington State

Photo from Seattle Times of Pro-Gun Rally in Olympia
Photo from Seattle Times of Pro-Gun Rally in Olympia

I’ve held off commenting on gun safety because I wanted to think about it for a while after the Sandy Hook incident. Writing new policy in knee-jerk response to a single incident typically is a bad idea. However, there have been enough incidents that I think we need to respond and create a safer place to live.

I have already received a lot of email on this issue and I try to address most of the issues that have come up. You may have to scroll to the bottom to get to yours – there have been a LOT of issues raised.

Some people think about this issue from a “rights” perspective – “I have a constitutional right to own whatever kind of firearm I want” and some from a public health perspective – “it turns out to be a bad idea to let people with unresolved mental health problems or domestic violence issues, felons, and children own dangerous weapons.” We can balance these two perspectives in reasonable ways.

Let’s start off with some fundamentals. I believe that the 2008 Supreme Court Heller decision does, in fact, grant everyone an individual right to possess guns. As the decision carefully lays out, there are boundaries to this right, particularly when they overlap with other rights people have. People have a right to own guns. They don’t  have a right to own military capacity firearms like tanks, bazookas, and machine guns. The discussion we will have both here in this Washington and at the federal level in the other Washington is what the boundaries of these definitions are and how we manage the process of acquisition and use in a way that ensures safety for the rest of us.

I see no reason we cannot:

  • Ensure that people with domestic violence restraining orders, mental health issues, etc. are unable to purchase guns by requiring background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows.
  • Keep guns out of the hands of small children and other unauthorized people by creating some kind of “safe storage” requirement. If you are going to keep a gun in your house or car you should be responsible to ensure that children do not have access to it.
  • Reduce the availability of military capacity guns that can fire many rounds very quickly. This is an extension of the principle we use in banning the private ownership of machine guns, bazookas and tanks and would fall under the supreme court’s definition of “unusual and dangerous” weapons. I believe this is a problem that can best be addressed at the federal level, not at the state level. I have no detailed knowledge of Sen. Feinstein’s bill or President Obama’s proposal and cannot comment on the specifics other than to say that it is an issue in the other Washington, not this one.
  • And, on a more personal note, I would feel more secure if most people (including elected officials, but not the numerous state patrol officers stationed at the capitol) were prohibited from carrying firearms on the floor of the House. A surprisingly large number of people who are not off-duty police officers feel a need to carry concealed pistols in a building filled with children, tour groups and sometimes angry protesters  The likelihood of accidents seems high.

One group wants to increase penalties for weapons violations by juveniles. This is probably a good idea on its own but we face an environment where corrections cost has increased about 70% over the last decade and revenue has only increased by about 50%, so we may have to make a reduction in sentences somewhere else to make this financially feasible.

We will also need to look at our investment in the mental health system. Unlike “physical” healthcare which really matters a lot to the individual and less to the rest of society, having a mental health system that balances individual rights (people who don’t want to be forced to take psychotropic medications or be committed to an institution) with public safety (if some people don’t take their medication or are not committed they can be a significant danger to other people) is a public health issue. We have made large cuts in how we provide mental health services for low income people and I worry about it – the only way you find out you haven’t hit the balance right is when you get lots of weird incidents – some of which involve random violence.

A number of years ago I sponsored a bill to modernize how Washington balances the gun rights of people who have been committed to mental institutions with the rights of the rest of society to be safe. I was able to come to an agreement with legislators representing the interests of the NRA and passed the bill with almost unanimous support in both the House and Senate. This was one of the few pieces of gun safety legislation to pass in the last 20 years. Unlike many states, Washington state now reports mental health status to the FBI for the purpose of instant background checks.

There are many people who want to allow teachers to carry guns in schools. I believe this is crazy, and every teacher I have talked to is very concerned about it. For every mass shooting that is stopped there are likely to be many “accidents” where guns fall out of purses, are left in drawers, etc. and become available to small children. This will not turn out well.

All of these proposals require significant work to get the details right, and the details matter. For example, it’s hard to distinguish assault rifles from normal hunting rifles in any objective way. The 1994 federal legislation didn’t work very well – it was riddled with loopholes and had very little measurable impact. As I said above, I believe that this issue can best be addressed at the federal level.

Wyoming and several other states are proposing “Gun Protection Laws” that attempt to preempt federal legislation that may or may not happen this year. This is based on the fantasy that states can pass legislation that “nullifies” federal laws. The US Constitution is pretty clear on this point.

Article VI

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

All of these suggestions are well within the boundaries set by the Supreme Court in Heller, their 2008 decision on the 2nd amendment. Nevertheless the proposals will generate tremendous political theater and a lot of email. My responsibilities in the legislature are centered around the budget and I will spend most of my time working on that. My office will be able to acknowledge receipt of emails and letters on this issue, but I won’t be able to engage in long conversations about the bills. We’ll keep track of constituent sentiment and it will, as always, influence my vote but not determine it.

Some interesting links:

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.