Debate over firearms has changed in Olympia

OLYMPIA — One 24-hour span demonstrates just how much the debate over firearms, at least for now, has changed at the Washington Legislature.

After an emotional debate late Wednesday night, Feb. 9, Democratic lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5078 on a party-line vote. The legislation, now headed for debate in the House, would prohibit the manufacture, distribution and sale of firearm magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

If enacted into law, the ban — which advocates and many Democrats have called necessary to reduce gun violence and fatalities — would limit not just magazines for rifles that hold 20 or 30 rounds. It would restrict the sale of magazines that go in a host of handguns and put Washington among a select group of states with tighter laws.

The timing for the annual Olympia gun-rights rally — which had been previously scheduled — seemed ripe for a crowd. For years, gun owners have turned out by the hundreds, and occasionally thousands, to fill the Capitol steps with signs and flags, pistols and long guns.

But on Thursday morning, Feb. 10, the gathering drew only about 50 people. And they could no longer display the pistols and long guns they used to bring since lawmakers last year banned open carry of firearms at the Capitol.

“I think the fact that we’re in Zoom session kind of tamps down on activism,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. Walsh, who spoke at Thursday’s rally, added: “It takes some of the air out of the balloon.”

Even so, the bill is likely to bring stiff resistance. With the Legislature in its second year of working mostly remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of people have signed up to oppose firearms legislation in some public hearings.

Now, with the 60-day legislative session more than halfway over, Democratic leaders will have to decide whether they have the votes and the willpower to push SB 5078 through the state House and over to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk for signature.

In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said staff members haven’t reviewed the bill, “so we can’t speculate on specific actions.” But he noted that Inslee himself had pushed for similar legislation previously.

The next step seems assured. Lawmakers will give the bill a public hearing in the House Civil Rights & Judiciary Committee, according to Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island.

“I’ve supported large-capacity magazine limits in the past … so I definitely want to see us move forward in this area,” Hansen, who chairs the committee, wrote in a text message.

But, “I don’t have good visibility into, is this the year” for it to pass the Legislature, Hansen added.

Likewise, in a meeting with reporters Wednesday hours before the bill passed, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, didn’t commit to giving the bill a floor vote in that chamber. She added: “It’s never a harmful year to do bills on gun safety.”

Sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, SB 5078 would ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of gun magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

In a Wednesday night floor speech urging passage, Liias invoked the Mukilteo shooting in the summer of 2016, when a gunman killed three people and injured another, and stopped shooting after running out of ammunition.

“On July 30, 2016, I vowed to myself and to my community that I would do everything in my power to ensure that no family has to go through what our community went through,” Liias said. “This measure will make Washington a safer place.”

The bill as passed includes exceptions to the prohibition, such as for corrections officers and law enforcement, members of the armed forces or Washington’s National Guard, and for licensed firearms dealers that sell to those institutions.

Violations would be a gross misdemeanor, which in Washington can bring up to 364 days in county jail or a fine of as much as $5,000.

The bill also makes the sale, offering for sale or distribution of a prohibited magazine a violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

In speeches and proposed amendments, Republicans drove home that point and raised concerns that the restrictions could hurt people’s ability to defend themselves.

“This is a serious bill that will jeopardize the safety of Washingtonians,” Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said during the debate.

Fortunato, Walsh and other Republicans questioned whether the bill — which doesn’t prohibit the actual possession of magazines with more than 10 rounds — would actually have an impact.

“It’s another piece of legislation that seems more driven by emotion than reason,” Walsh said. “It’s very easy to get around the restraints it would put on individuals.”

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, rejected that thinking, saying in a statement, “This historic vote represents an important step toward combating mass shootings.”

In his statement, Ferguson — who requested the legislation — noted that nine states restrict high-capacity magazines, with more than 93 million people living in states that block sales of magazines with more than 10 rounds.

Limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines can force shooters to stop and reload, buying time for people to escape and law enforcement to respond, according to a statement by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

In a statement Thursday, Renée Hopkins, chief executive officer of the organization that pushes for stricter firearms regulations, called the bill’s passage “a huge victory for the people of Washington.”

The first time Washington lawmakers tried a floor vote on a high-capacity magazine ban was in 2020, when House Democratic lawmakers prepared to debate a bill.

But House Republican lawmakers derailed that vote by sponsoring more than 120 amendments. Debating those amendments could have eaten up days or weeks of floor debate. In response, House Democrats shelved the bill.