In Wake of Parkland and Pittsburgh Shootings, Washington Voters Pass Comprehensive Gun Control

Washington state, which has a history of letting voters weigh in on guns, now ranks among the states with the toughest firearm laws.
by | November 7, 2018
Semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop.
Semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

SPEED READ:

  • Washington state voters approved Initiative 1639, a comprehensive gun control law that puts Washington among the states with the nation's strictest gun control measures.
  • It includes secure gun storage requirements, enhanced background checks, waiting periods for firearms and a raised age for purchasing a semiautomatic assault rifle. 
  • The state's voters passed gun control measures in 2014 and 2016.
 

The small coastal city of Mukilteo, Wash., is haunted by tragedy. Two years ago, 19-year-old Allen Ivanov walked into a house party with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and killed three other teens. At the time, Mukilteo was the state’s fifth mass shooting that year.

During his sentencing hearing, Ivanov said, “It was the ease of acquiring a gun that enabled me to act on my emotions.”

Paul Kramer, whose son was seriously injured in the shooting, became the public face of a Washington state control gun control measure that passed on Tuesday with just over 60 percent of the vote. The new law will be the most comprehensive gun control legislation in the state's history, putting it among the handful of states with the country's strictest gun control laws.

“Pretty much everything that’s in Initiative 1639 has been sitting in the Washington Legislature for years,” says Tallman Trask, spokesman for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the advocacy group behind the measure. “These are laws that have been considered but have not been acted on, so it’s time for voters to take it into their hands.”

Washington's Initiative 1639 was the only statewide gun measure on the ballot in November. The vote took place just 10 days after 11 people were fatally shot inside a Pittsburgh synagogue and nine months after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17.

The measure’s 19 sections include secure gun storage requirements, enhanced background checks and waiting periods for firearms. It will also raise the minimum age required to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle from 18 to 21.

Washington state has a strong, constitutionally protected gun rights tradition, says Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington. But the state has also implemented "substantial" gun regulations dating back to the inception of the state constitution, he says. This includes bans on concealed carry and on guns in certain establishments like bars.

“From a state constitution standpoint, our strong ‘right to bear arms' provision clearly would allow for the kinds of regulations included in this particular initiative,” says Spitzer.

That history of regulation includes bringing gun control issues directly to voters. In 2014, they approved a measure to expand background checks for gun purchases. In 2016, they approved a law that allows courts to remove firearm access for “extreme risk” individuals. This year, the state issued a ban on bump stocks, bringing it further up the list of states with the strictest gun laws -- California, New Jersey and Connecticut rank in the top three.

These increased restrictions were opposed by groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Washington Arms Collectors, which both campaigned against the measure. Both take issue with many of Initiative 1639's provisions.

“We all strongly support safe firearm storage, but changing the law to shift the blame for a crime ... is wrong. The message to the public and the legal system is that your formerly law-abiding gun ownership is a threat to the community,” wrote Phil Shave, editor of the Washington Arms Collectors' news blog.

NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide raises concerns about the potential effect of the measure on low-income families.

“The cost of the training and time needed to complete the training will serve as a barrier that blocks law-abiding people from exercising a constitutionally recognized right,” says Dalseide.

But Trask says these critiques are "baseless." The goal of his group, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, is to end gun violence and promote "a culture of gun ownership that balances rights with responsibilities."

Pittsburgh is the most recent in a string of high-profile shootings, including one that killed 58 people at a Las Vegas concert in 2017 and another that left 49 dead at an Orlando nightclub in 2016. Nationally, mass shootings account for about 1 percent of more than 30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. each year. But mass shootings tend to have a much larger effect on gun legislation than “ordinary gun homicides,” according to Harvard University researchers.

Since the Parkland shooting in February, states have enacted about 50 new laws restricting gun access.

For Washington, Initiative 1639 is the next logical step forward in ensuring the public’s safety, says Trask. The measure garnered more than 375,000 signatures (of the 259,622 required) in about three weeks to qualify for the ballot. This was a "record time," he says.

“We’ve really had great support from across the state and across demographic groups,” says Trask. “People in this state are ready for change.”

For a full summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.