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Originally published January 8, 2013 at 6:40 PM | Page modified January 9, 2013 at 9:29 AM

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Divided legislators may consider sharply differing gun-policy laws

Last month's school shooting in Connecticut has helped create the most ripe conditions for new gun laws in Washington state in years. But lawmakers are starkly divided on how to prevent gun violence.

Seattle Times staff reporter

March and rally to ban semi-automatic assault rifles

Washington CeaseFire, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Faith Action Network of Washington, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and many other groups are calling on state elected officials to ban semi-automatic weapons such as the gun used in the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings last month.

Sunday, 1:30 p.m. Westlake Park

March to Seattle Center Mural Amphitheater

2:30 p.m. rally featuring state Sen. Ed Murray and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

What makes an assault weapon?

Click above to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

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Ralph Fascitelli is used to seeing a couple dozen or so people show up at the events he organizes for Washington CeaseFire, a gun-control advocacy group.

More than 1,000 are expected to attend a downtown Seattle rally this Sunday.

"It's pretty incredible, the kind of attention that this issue is getting," Fascitelli said. "It hasn't been like this since, maybe ever."

The gruesome school shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month helped create the most ripe conditions for new gun laws in Washington state in years, according to advocates who plan to push a variety of measures when the Legislature convenes next week.

But it's unclear where the momentum will lead. Democratic leaders plan to revive longtime priorities such as banning so-called assault weapons and requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows. Some Republicans hope to go in a very different direction — reducing gun-free zones that they say make targets of the most vulnerable. And other lawmakers want to focus on reforming the state's mental-health system.

State Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat and chairman of the House committee that oversees gun policy, said there is bipartisan support for two measures: increasing the penalties for juveniles caught with guns, and expanding the state's ability to commit those deemed dangerous.

But Pedersen said he's not optimistic lawmakers will find the common ground to do much more.

Democrats control the state House and governor's mansion, but a coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats is expected to control the 49-seat state Senate. The coalition plans to assign chairmanship of the committee dealing with gun policy to Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, which generally opposes restrictions.

Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who next week is expected to be named Senate majority leader, said he is willing to consider gun proposals — but only if they do not distract from his coalition's stated focus on improving education, creating jobs and crafting a sustainable budget.

This Legislature's expected emphasis on finding more money for education — potentially at the expense of other programs — could also stymie policy proposals related to guns and the mental-health system.

Some lawmakers, including Tom, signaled that those proposals may be best dealt with through citizen initiative.

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, said Inslee supports "reasonable gun-control measures," including an assault-weapons ban and background checks at gun shows. But Clifford said he does not "anticipate any gun-control proposals originating in the governor's office."

Armed teachers?

GOP state Rep. Liz Pike helped to kick off the state gun-laws conversation last month with a widely read Facebook post that floated the idea of allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom if they undergo training and pass a psychological evaluation. The program, modeled after one in place for airline pilots, would be voluntary.

Pike, of Camas, said she has been encouraged by the response, including more than 100 Facebook comments.

Joel Kretz, a fellow House Republican, said his party likes the idea of re-examining gun-free zones.

"When you hang out a sign that says 'Gun Free Zone,' an unbalanced person knows that they can shoot a lot of people before anybody stops them," said Kretz, of Wauconda, the caucus's deputy leader. "It's an invitation."

But Pedersen, the House committee leader, said he is not planning to give Pike's idea a hearing.

"It strikes me that it's likely very expensive and quite dangerous," said Pedersen, citing the potential for a student to overpower a teacher and for a teacher to inadvertently shoot a student.

Democrats are mulling their own proposals.

At the top of their wish list are a cap on the number of bullets a gun magazine clip can hold and a prohibition on so-called assault weapons, semi-automatic firearms that discharge quickly. An effort in the Legislature to ban those weapons failed in 2010.

They also want to require background checks and waiting periods for all purchases at gun shows. Currently, those are required at brick-and-mortar stores, but not when purchasing from a private dealer at a gun show.

"No questions are asked at a gun show," said state Sen. Adam Kline, who will be the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee tasked with gun policy. "It's crazy."

Kline, of Seattle, said he will introduce legislation to hold adults criminally responsible if a child gets hold of a loaded gun without supervision. That idea stems from accidental shootings last spring by children in Bremerton, Marysville and Tacoma.

Unclear prospects

Despite the post-Newtown dynamic, gun-rights advocates said they're hopeful they can defeat new restrictions.

Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, noted that gun purchases have spiked since last month's shooting.

"Washington is supportive of gun rights," he said.

Others pointed to Padden, the expected incoming Senate committee chairman. Padden declined to comment, but a statement released by his office noted that "they have an assault weapons ban in Connecticut, and obviously, that didn't stop the killer." Some believe that people determined to commit violence will get around restrictions such as bans and background checks.

Another GOP committee member, Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood, Pierce County, said he instead will seek to address the problem by remaking the state's mental-health system. Among other ideas, he wants to make it easier for people to get attention from the system when a friend or relative seems at risk for violence.

There is broad theoretical support for reforming the mental-health system, but several lawmakers said it could be prohibitively expensive.

Ultimately, lawmakers and advocates said it's hard to predict what will happen this session.

"I think we have the best shot we've ever had of getting something passed," said Fascitelli, of Washington CeaseFire. "But it won't be easy. It's never easy on gun control."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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