As gun laws debated, state Capitol welcomes firearms
Carrying guns on the Capitol campus has long been allowed in Olympia. It’s seldom discussed, rarely criticized and speaks volumes about the debate over gun control this session.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — For Rep. David Taylor, a gun is like an article of clothing. He wears it everywhere — even on the floor of the state House of Representatives.
“I’ve carried for so long that it’s second nature to me. It’s almost like, if for some reason I don’t have it with me, I feel like I’m missing my wallet,” said Taylor, a two-term Republican from Moxee, Yakima County.
What Taylor does is legal, and he’s not alone. Other state lawmakers say they, too, have carried concealed weapons on the Capitol campus and on the floor. In fact, Washington’s Capitol is one of the few in the country with no restrictions on firearms.
It’s part of the culture in Olympia, something that’s seldom discussed, rarely criticized and speaks volumes about the split between those who oppose most curbs on gun ownership and those pressing for gun-control legislation this session.
Over the years, the state Legislature has proved a friendly place for gun rights. A majority of Washington state lawmakers get high marks from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s dominant pro-gun lobby, according to Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group.
Yet in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut in December, gun-rights advocates are having to play defense.
Several bills have been introduced this session to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. In addition, Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray wants to ban assault weapons, and Gov. Jay Inslee, also a Democrat, supports some gun-control measures.
Gun-control proponents have hopes for House Bill 1588, which would require universal background checks for all firearms sales in the state. Currently, such checks are required only when buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer. Gun-show transactions and private sales are exempt.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, calls it the “lowest-hanging fruit” when it comes to gun control.
Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, thinks the measure has a good chance of making it at least through the House, which is controlled by Democrats.
“The problem is in the Senate now,” he said, noting it’s controlled by a Republican-led majority. Many of the members have strong NRA ties.
NRA rankings, however, suggest the House will be no pushover, either.
And there’s legislation coming from the other side, as well, including the Washington state Firearms Freedom Act, introduced by Taylor.
The bill says, in part, that any federal law, rule or order that is passed after Jan. 1, 2013, related to banning, registering semi-automatic firearms or magazines is unenforceable in Washington, he said.
Protest signs not allowed
Lawmakers have passed laws banning guns at courthouses, schools and bars, but they’ve never restricted the right to bear arms in the state Capitol.
When gun-rights supporters rallied in Olympia on Friday, a woman’s protest sign was confiscated when she tried to enter the statehouse, while a man carrying a rifle walked in with no problem. State officials said signs aren’t allowed because they take up too much room.
At least one lawmaker in the past apparently thought carrying a gun helped him get a bill passed.
In 1982, then-Sen. Kent Pullen debated gun laws on the floor with a Smith & Wesson semiautomaticjammed into his shoulder holster.
The Kent Republican, who died in 2003, was advocating a measure to allow gun owners to leave firearms in their cars.
Pullen later recounted that he told his fellow legislators he had no choice but to carry his gun until the measure passed. “I never saw a bill move so fast in my life,” he said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures in 2009 studied which state capitols had firearm restrictions.
Of the 42 states that responded to the survey, only Washington, Texas and Kentucky indicated they had no restrictions on carrying weapons at their capitols. Eight states allowed people with concealed-weapons permits on campus, and the rest restricted firearms to law-enforcement and security staff.
No one tracks how many Washington lawmakers carry guns, and concealed-weapon permits are kept private under state law.
However, in addition to Taylor, Reps. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, and Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, recently said they occasionally carry guns in the statehouse.
Anecdotally, lawmakers say there are many more legislators who carry concealed weapons.
Hope is a Seattle police officer and Hurst is a retired police detective.
Hurst, who spent 25 years in law enforcement, said he’s carried a weapon on the floor when “there were debates that were going to bring out people with such passions that there was enough of a concern.”
State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said she has a concealed-weapons permit but does not carry a firearm at the Capitol. But Roach said she picked a desk on the Senate floor that’s beside a marble pillar, so she can duck behind it should anything happen.
Hurst said that legislators who do carry guns should keep in mind they can become a target if they ever pull out their weapon in self-defense.
“Any legislator who is carrying a weapon should consider the possibility that displaying that weapon and coming in contact with a uniformed police officer who does not know them, might find themselves shot and killed almost immediately,” he said.
Hope agreed and said he’d like to see the Legislature ban guns on campus. “I would love to see it set up just like a courthouse, where we have to go through security in order to get to the chambers,” he said.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, also sees no need for guns at the Capitol given that armed state troopers patrol the campus. He said he’d like to see a statehouse ban, but does not expect it.
“We have had agonizing discussions about whether we’re going to allow guns on the Capitol campus many times over the last 10 years, and we’ve never had enough votes,” Hunter said. “People get all hissy about it. It’s like one of these: ‘This is my right.’ ”
Universal background checks
All that said, Hunter and other lawmakers said this could be the year the Legislature passes a gun-control measure.
Hunter noted that Hope, who has an A-plus rating from the NRA, signed onto Pedersen’s bill for universal background checks.
“Everyone should support the bill,” Hope said. “It will impact those who are bent on committing crimes.”
It’s not clear yet if Hope is an exception among lawmakers with high marks from the NRA.
A majority in the chamber — 55 members — have a NRA rating of B or better, including House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
The NRA characterizes a B rating as “generally pro gun” and an A as “solidly pro gun.”
Sullivan has an A rating from the NRA and he embraced that distinction in an interview, saying he has a “strong Second Amendment position.”
Sullivan also said he has concerns about Pedersen’s background-check bill, which is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday. “I want to make sure that we’re solving the problem that’s actually the problem,” he said.
Taylor, for one, doesn’t like Pedersen’s bill.
“I firmly believe that if we want universal background checks, then we should be instead encouraging people to get a concealed-weapons permit,” said Taylor, noting that background checks are required to get a permit.
Likewise, Taylor said he had no problem with legislators exercising their right to carry a firearm.
“I encourage them to do so,” he said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org