In response to Seattle's continued spate of gun violence, city lawmakers are proposing a litany of new gun control regulations to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. Bruce Harrell, chair of the Seattle City Council's public safety committee, told reporters the day of the Cafe Racer shootings, "Now is not the time for grandstanding." There's only one problem: Without the green light from state legislators, all of Seattle's proposals may be illegal.
"There's nothing the city could impose by rule or ordinance that could be more restrictive than state law," explains Bob Scales, a lawyer who works in the Seattle City Attorney's Office. Washington is one of 40 states that have passed gun preemption laws—meaning that state law prohibits cities, towns, and counties from adopting more conservative gun laws than the state's own. And those are pitifully weak: Washington State scored 15 out of 100 points on the 2011 safety scorecard from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (California scored the highest with 81 points). "Basically, we're stuck with whatever the state legislature decides," Scales says.
For example, Washington gun owners aren't required to report the theft of their firearms, and while background checks are mandatory when buying from licensed gun dealers, private sellers are exempt—an oversight known as the gun-show loophole.
"I can go to a gun show, pay cash, and walk out with an assault weapon with no background check," explains Daniel Byrne, board president of Washington CeaseFire, who says that about 40 percent of gun sales happen through these private transactions. "This is why we need to close the gun-show loophole."
Closing that loophole was one of the ideas that came up at a June 6 public safety meeting of city officials and Seattle police brass. They also discussed bills banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, requiring universal background checks, and imposing stricter penalties on minors found in possession of firearms.
None of these proposals are new—and none have ever passed in Olympia.
"All of them have been tried at some point without any success," explains Scales. And if Seattle tries to push the envelope, state preemption law seems clear on what will happen: The city will lose. In 2009, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels banned guns from city parks, playgrounds, and community centers. Less than a year later, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the ban was illegal and the state supreme court refused to hear an appeal. Council president Sally Clark says the city was "slapped back" in that case. And unless they can find allies for gun control in the legislature, the city will be stuck grandstanding.