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WA lawmakers may end open carry in parks, require a permit to buy a gun

Democrats want to pass new restrictions to reduce gun violence, proliferation of firearms

Lawmakers’ latest quest for tougher gun laws in Washington began Monday
Lawmakers’ latest quest for tougher gun laws in Washington began Monday (AP)
By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Democratic lawmakers’ latest quest for tougher gun laws in Washington began Monday, Jan. 15, with a push to bar open carrying of firearms in parks, bus stations, libraries and local government buildings.

In an hourlong hearing, a state Senate panel listened to supporters say proposed legislation containing such restrictions will reduce the chances of children and families becoming victims of gun violence.

“It’s frightening, intimidating, dangerous and completely unnecessary to have people openly carrying guns inside a public library,” Paula Simpson Barnes, a retired public library director, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee. 

Neal Black, a Kirkland City Council member, said provisions in Senate Bill 5444 would bolster the city’s effort to keep residents safe when recreating.

“Quite literally, I can keep cars out of places where kids play, but not guns,” he said.

Opponents, some of them parents who are gun owners, said the limits sought in the bill infringe on their rights embedded in the Constitution’s Second Amendment.

“Senate Bill 5444 is a blatant attempt to abridge the right to keep and bear arms by regulating it into practical non-existence,” said Aoibheann Cline, the National Rifle Association’s northwest regional director of state and local legislative affairs.

Several argued the law will disarm parents leaving them and their children more vulnerable to injury.

“In the defense of an innocent child or person, undermining my ability to respond with force to a child abduction, dog attack or an attack of violence doesn’t make our community safer. It increases the ability for criminals to prey on our kids,” said Jeremy Ball, a private security instructor and father.

Monday was the opening salvo in this session’s debate on guns. 

“We’ve made progress over the years,” said Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor. “But we know we have so much more work to do. Our public needs to know that we are taking every step we can to keep them safe from gun violence.”

Building on past legislation

Washington is an open-carry state, meaning a person can openly carry a firearm in many public areas without a permit. They can carry a concealed weapon with a license.

There are public venues where open carry has long been barred, such as courtrooms, jails, schools, airports, child care centers and mental health facilities. In recent years, lawmakers moved to keep weapons out of legislative hearing rooms and the galleries of the state House and Senate. 

A 2021 law banned open carry of weapons on state Capitol grounds and within 250 feet of permitted public demonstrations.

In 2022, majority Democrats overcame Republican opposition to approve a bill creating gun-free zones in places where government or school board meetings are going on, and in election offices and ballot counting centers.

Senate Bill 5444 continues the trend by restricting open carry of firearms at a number of public locations where people regularly congregate. In keeping with those prior laws, a person could still carry a concealed weapon into any of the locations as long as they have a valid license.

As proposed, the Senate bill would cover neighborhood, community, and regional park facilities at which children and youth are likely to be present. That would mean sites with playgrounds, sports fields, swimming pools, and skate parks, among other amenities. Signs must be posted stating open carry of weapons by visitors is not permitted.

Transit stations, bus shelters, public libraries, zoos and aquariums would also be deemed off-limits to open carry.

Violations would be a gross misdemeanor with a potential maximum sentence of 364 days in jail, a $5,000 fine or both.

Several opponents said that the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2022 Bruen decision tightened the standard for states restricting firearms in “sensitive places.” While schools and government buildings were mentioned in the decision and are likely to qualify as such places, other locations where restrictions may be allowed are less clear.

Since the ruling, lower courts have not been friendly to states trying to carve out gun-free zones, Cline said.

“These lower courts are consistently rejecting states’ proprietary rights arguments and the argument that space is a sensitive place just because children and families use them,” she said.

The Senate bill discussed Monday is on the calendar for a possible vote Thursday in the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics.

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