OLYMPIA — You can openly carry a firearm in Washington, though places to do so legally are disappearing.
Courtrooms, jails, schools and airports have long been off-limits. A few months ago a new law added the campus of the state Capitol to the list. It also banned open-carry at or near public rallies and demonstrations.
Majority Democrats in the House and Senate, who pushed through that law, are working this session to extend prohibitions on open-carry to, in one lawmaker’s words, “wherever democracy takes place.”
Their approaches are noticeably different.
In the House, Democrats are pushing House Bill 1630 to bar firearms and other dangerous weapons from places where government bodies meet, like city councils, county councils and school boards. Weapons also would be barred from election offices, ballot counting facilities and voting centers, and election officials would be required to post signs detailing the restriction.
Law enforcement officers would be exempt — private security personnel, as well, if they’ve completed firearm training. A person licensed to carry a concealed weapon could have a gun in buildings and facilities where meetings are taking place. Even they could not have the weapon on them in areas where ballot counting is occurring.
“I would prefer us as a state to be clear in our intention that these are safe places and they are free of weapons,” said Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek. Those locations where democracy takes place “do not need weapons,” she said.
Berg authored a separate bill to keep guns out of election centers. She amended it into HB 1630, which awaits action in the House Rules Committee.
Their Senate counterparts are looking to allow cities, towns, counties and other municipalities to craft their own open-carry restrictions beyond statewide rules. Senate Bill 5568 would modify current law, which preempts local governments from doing so.
That legislation moved out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday on a party-line vote. It awaits action in the Senate Rules Committee
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the prime sponsor, said local elected officials sought the option to exceed state restrictions.
Both bills are in response to what Democrats say has been a dangerous uptick in tense confrontations at public meetings fueled by national politics, pandemic policies and instruction of social theories. It’s much the same argument made last session, when they debated and passed the ban on open-carry at the Capitol and at public demonstrations.
“If you feel a need to bring a weapon to a school board meeting … what is the point, if not to intimidate? It’s intended to be intimidating,” Kuderer said. She doesn’t view the House bill to be competition. “If doing something statewide is preferred, I am going to vote for that happily.”
Renee Hopkins, chief executive officer of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, considers the bills complementary. Combined they will add safeguards against political violence.
“The most important thing is that open-carry not be allowed to keep people from being able to access their First Amendment rights,” she said.
A leading gun-rights activist said Kuderer’s bill is problematic because it could result in a patchwork of laws city-to-city and county-to-county.
“Between Olympia and Seattle, there might be 20 different laws in the communities,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “This would let the city of Seattle run wild.”
Neither of the bills is necessary, he said.
“Basically they are solutions in search of a problem,” he said. “Each year they chip away. If it was up to them, they wouldn’t allow gun ownership.”
Outlawing open-carry altogether is not on the Democrats’ agenda.
“That is not a conversation I’ve had with any of my colleagues,” Berg said. “As a mother, I personally do not love seeing people carrying firearms openly. That is a conversation we can have at another time.”
Kuderer is ready now. With the country’s serious gun problem, she doesn’t get why people feel they need to openly carry weapons wherever they go.
Washington “should not be an open-carry state,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of in Washington state. The fact that we’re an open-carry state is not one of them.”