Last fall, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson called for banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines outright. His proposal, like the ban on bump stocks announced by Governor Jay Inslee yesterday, immediately followed a mass shooting, one at a house party full of teenagers in Mukilteo. Three 19-year-olds died.
Ferguson submitted proposed legislation to the state legislature, where it never even got a hearing.
"For decades, I think we all know, any issue dealing with guns seems to be a third rail in politics," Renee Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility said. Thanks to the powerful efforts of the gun lobby, "there was an assumption that in a purplish state that anybody who would embrace common sense gun legislation would pay for it at the voting booth," she added.
Much of that reluctance is still in place today, as evidenced by the fate of another bill proposed by the Attorney General's Office last year. This one would have required buyers of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to register for a license similar to the ones handgun owners have. (Assault weapons fall into the same category of hunting rifles, which have fewer ownership requirements than pistols do.) Even after the bill was significantly watered down, it still failed to get a vote in committee. The reason? Its sponsor learned that the National Rifle Association wouldn't support it.
The sponsor, State Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma), said she intends to push that bill again this year. But it's hard to get any gun legislation through without bipartisan support, she said. The gun lobby opposed the bill, but when Jinkins tried to propose a fix with them, "they said, 'We're not going to talk to you about it,'" she said.
"There’s a lot of risk with proposing a ban on assault weapons," State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), a cosponsor of Ferguson's bill, said. "[Ferguson] did it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. Anytime someone does something courageous like this, they get a political target put on their back, especially if they want to run statewide. It takes some courage to be able to request legislation like this.”
Hopkins, of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, told The Stranger that a failure to get anything on guns passed in the state legislature shifted their priorities to a different strategy: taking the issue straight to the voters.
In 2014, voters statewide approved background checks for everyone purchasing a gun, including private sales at gun shows and online. Two years later, voters again approved another measure that created Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), a class of protection order that allows someone's family, intimate partners, guardians, or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily prevent that person, feared to hurt themselves or others, from owning or buying guns.
These initiatives demonstrated that if legislators wouldn't budge on guns, voters would. The 2014 initiative won with 60 percent of the vote, and the 2016 initiative won with nearly 10 more percentage points. Rep. Jinkins, who had tried but failed to move ERPOs through the state legislature before it became a ballot initiative, said that 48 out of 49 legislative districts supported the second piece of legislation.
"This is an issue in which the legislature is wildly, wildly out of step," she said.
The Alliance for Gun Responsibility's approach has been to work on gun safety legislation from a number of different angles—and they're continuing to push proposals in the legislature. But in the Republican-controlled state senate, that's virtually impossible. A major game-changer could be the election of a Democrat, Manka Dhingra, in the 45th district, on the East Side, Hopkins said.
"I think if the majority of the legislature [doesn't] change, it's very unlikely we will see meaningful gun safety legislation pass next session," said Mike Webb, the state attorney general's chief of staff.
But getting meaningful gun legislation passed also comes down to how much voters hold their electeds accountable. "I think people should make it very clear to their elected officials that whether or not they vote for them will be judged on gun violence," Rep. Laurie Jinkins said.
Jinkins compares the reluctance to make policy on guns to the issue that stymied legislatures on advancing gay rights for years.
"When it started to become clear that there were a lot of voters who wouldn't support someone who didn't support marriage equality, a lot of votes dissolved," she said. "I think people just need to feel like it's the right thing to do and there's as much risk to not passing good gun violence legislation as there is to passing it."
And as for legislators offering "thoughts and prayers," Jinkins says it's not enough. "People can say that they pray for peace and for healing," she said, "but there are things we can do to stop this, and I don't think it's enough to just give those words and then not take action to make change."