For 7th straight year, Democrats aim for assault weapon ban

Democratic legislators will seek several gun control laws in the 2023 session, including one requiring a permit to buy a firearm.

OLYMPIA — A ban on assault weapons. A permit and longer waiting period to purchase a firearm. A path to holding gun makers and sellers accountable if one of their products harms someone.

These form the fulcrum of an agenda to combat surging gun violence that Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Democratic lawmakers will push in the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

“Too many guns of the wrong kind are ending up in the wrong hands,” Inslee said at a news conference Dec. 19. “We intend in this session of the Legislature to give Washingtonians assertive, effective and protective laws to protect them and their children against this epidemic.”

The effort arrives amid a rise of 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.

This isn’t the first time Ferguson has requested lawmakers pass a bill to prohibit the sale, manufacture and import of assault weapons. It’s his seventh.

With strong public support in the state and Democrats enjoying large majorities in both chambers, there’s greater optimism for success.

“When it comes to common sense gun reforms, the people are way ahead of the politicians on these issues,” said Ferguson, a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2024. “This is an effort to meet the people where they are.”

Eight states have passed laws similar to what Ferguson is proposing. To date, those have withstood legal challenge. If Washington enacts a ban, it will almost certainly be challenged in court, Ferguson acknowledged.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, has sponsored legislation in the House each of the seven years. It’s because of the 2016 mass shooting in his district, in Mukilteo, where an armed young man killed three people and wounded a fourth before running out of bullets. The shooter used an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon that would be banned under the proposal.

“We need to ban these weapons of war. We’ve been trying, we’ve been failing,” he said at the news conference. “I think this is the year to do it because the people are speaking.”

The version considered last session covered at least 62 specific firearms but not antique firearms. That’s the problem, said Dave Workman, spokesman for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

“The bigger picture here is the gun prohibition lobby wants to ban a whole class of firearms,” he said. “The concern of the gun community is all of those firearms are on the hit lists. You’re criminalizing the possession of a firearm that’s been legal for 100-some years.”

The second bill aims to make it harder for people to easily acquire a gun. What is envisioned is a process similar to what it takes to get a concealed pistol license. A person would apply in person for a permit and verify they completed a safety training course. They would have a waiting period of 10 days before taking possession of a firearm.

The third bill would make it possible for people to sue gun manufacturers and dealers.

The federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act shields gun manufacturers and sellers from liability in some circumstances, Ferguson said. However, he noted, Congress allows states to regulate firearm sales and marketing practices by exempting such laws from the federal statute.

What he’s proposing, dubbed the Firearm Industry Responsibility and Gun Violence Victims’ Access to Justice Act, would require gun dealers and manufacturers who conduct business in the state to establish and enforce reasonable controls of their firearm-related products.

Under the proposal, failure to do so would be a violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act and public nuisance law, clearing a path for legal action against them by those injured or families of those killed as a result of the conduct, the attorney general explained.

Republican Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen, a leading voice for gun rights activists, contended the ban and the permit-to-purchase bills are “a waste of taxpayer time and money,” and if passed, they would eventually be overturned by federal courts.

These “performative proposals” also run afoul of a provision in the state Constitution protecting a citizen’s right to bear arms to defend themselves, he said in a statement.

“Any fair-minded person can see that banning an entire category of rifles and demanding a special state permit to buy any firearm impair that right,” he said.

Washington currently has some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws, a result of voter initiatives and legislative action. This past session, for example, Inslee signed a law banning the sale of firearm magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition. It took effect July 1.

The 2023 session begins Jan. 9 and will last 105 days.