State of the State 2023

Ambitious Housing Reform Has a Real Shot This Year

Years Into a Housing Crisis, the State Might Let Us Build More Places to Live This Year!

The Stranger’s 2023 Bill Tracker

A Big List of Promising and Not-So-Promising Proposals to Fix the State’s Polycrisis

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The Stranger’s Big-Ass Preview of Washington's 2023 Legislative Session

Guns! Abortion! Housing! Police Reform! Health Care! Taxing the Rich! And Steamrolling the GOP! Or Not.

Get Jesus Out of Our Uteruses

Democrats Vow to Make Washington an Abortion Sanctuary

Washington Democrats Defeat Transphobic Bills as Most LGBTQ Protections Clear Hurdles

If the Protections Ultimately Pass, We Could See Big Gains for the Community

Washington's Next Police Reform Battle

Ending Qualified Immunity Won't Be Easy, but It's Necessary

Washington Takes Aim at the Gun Industry

We’re Banning Assault Weapons! Requiring Gun Permits! And Unleashing Bob Ferguson! Maybe!

In his State-of-the-State address on Tuesday, Governor Jay Inslee told state legislators to act with “decisiveness, ambition, and audacity” this year on his agenda to create a Washington where our “schools are safe from gun violence.”

To help move the state closer to that ideal, he identified three specific gun violence prevention bills that he wants the State Legislature to send to his desk: a ban on assault weapons, a requirement to get a permit to purchase guns, and a pathway for the Attorney General’s office and victims of gun violence to sue gun manufacturers and sellers. 

If Democrats in Olympia are willing to push through each proposal on party-line votes, their newly-expanded majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature make Republicans largely helpless to stop them. Let’s take a look at each of the proposals and see just what’s got the National Rifle Association up in a tizzy.

It's Finally Time to Ban Assault Weapons

In his speech, Inslee called out the need to ban military-style assault weapons as a critical part of protecting children from gun violence. He argued that the guns are “designed for the sole purpose of destroying lives—the lives of school children, law enforcement officers, concert-goers, nightclub patrons, and people gathered in houses of worship.”

And though Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has been trying to get the State Legislature to ban assault weapons since 2017, the public has finally come around on the measure. Several polls have found more people support the idea than oppose it on both sides of the Cascades, and voters approved more regulations on purchasing semi-automatic assault rifles when they backed I-1639 at the ballot box in 2018.

This year’s proposal to ban assault weapons, Senate Bill 5265, would make importing, distributing, selling, or marketing the prohibited guns a gross misdemeanor. It does provide exceptions for selling to law enforcement or the military, and for people who inherit guns that would otherwise be banned. The law would take effect immediately after the governor signs it. 

In a press release, the Attorney General’s office pointed out that eight states already have similar laws on the books, and that multiple federal courts have upheld those bans after gun rights groups brought lawsuits challenging them as unconstitutional.

Dylan O’Connor, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility’s lobbyist, said in an interview that the prospects of passing this version of the ban are the best he’s seen in recent years. He noted that prior versions of the assault weapons ban didn’t make it onto the Alliance’s legislative agenda, but that the organization sees a successful path for the legislation this year.

“We think it can pass and it should pass,” O’Connor said. “There’s a lot to say about why this is the moment, but the stigma for a swing district legislator voting for these bills is broken. Running on these policies is a way to get reelected, and once you’ve crossed that threshold psychologically, the game changes. It’s shifted the dynamic in its entirety.”

Permit-to-Purchase Laws Save Lives

The second of Inslee’s proposals to reduce gun violence, House Bill 1143, would overhaul Washington’s gun licensing regime to require anyone who wants to purchase a gun to get a permit to do so first. 

The permitting process would require the prospective gun owner to get fingerprinted, take a class in gun safety, and pass an enhanced background check before they could walk into a Cabela’s and pick up a new gun. 

Passing the proposed legislation would likely save lives. In Connecticut, research has shown that permit-to-purchase laws have reduced firearm homicides by 28% and firearm suicides by 33% over a 22-year period. By contrast, the same research showed Missouri’s repeal of similar legislation led to a 47% increase in firearm homicides and a 23% increase in firearm suicides. 

O’Connor explained that the permit-to-purchase laws work by reducing the flow of guns from legal purchases to the black market and by forcing people who might be experiencing a mental health crisis to wait longer before they can get their hands on a gun that would turn their breakdown into a fatal encounter.

He also explained that equity concerns about who bears the burden of enforcement for gun laws played a factor in designing the penalty for violating the proposed law. Rather than repeat the mistakes of prior gun violence prevention measures, whose penalties disproportionately fell on people of color due to the racial bias of the criminal legal system, the proposed legislation places liability on the gun seller rather than the buyer.  

It’s possible the permitting law could face legal challenges similar to the lawsuit that stalled the implementation of Oregon’s permit-to-purchase law last month, though the details of the lawsuits against Oregon’s regulations make predicting how Washington’s courts would handle the issue murky at best. 

Unleash Bob Ferguson on the Gun Industry 

The final bill on Inslee’s gun violence prevention agenda, Senate Bill 5078, would take advantage of a gap in federal regulations to allow victims of gun violence and the Attorney General’s office to sue gun manufacturers and sellers in civil court under Washington’s consumer protection law. 

The victim or the AG’s office would have to establish that the manufacturer or seller failed to enact “reasonable controls” to avoid allowing their guns to fall into the hands of someone who the law prohibits from possessing a gun. If they can prove that the lack of those reasonable controls contributed to the harm caused by the person who used the manufacturer or sellers’ gun, victims or the AG’s office can make the industry pay for the damage they caused and get a court order forcing them to change their business practices. 

Since Congress enacted the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in 2005, these kinds of product liability lawsuits against the gun industry have been barred in federal court. However, Congress specifically provided states with the authority to pass laws like SB 5078 as part of the PLCAA, so it’s unlikely that any legal challenge to this part of Inslee’s gun violence prevention agenda would get much play. 

If Democrats in Olympia pass SB 5078, Washington would join New York, California, Delaware, and New Jersey as the only states to take Congress up on that invitation to regulate the gun industry. Doing so would allow suits like the case that forced the gun shop that sold the guns used in the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks to proceed in Washington state courts.

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that any Republican will risk a primary challenge by crossing the gun lobby and supporting any of the three bills. That means it’s up to Democrats to answer Inslee’s charge to prove to Washington’s students that “the gun lobby doesn’t make the rules in Washington state — we do.”