The Washington state House on Sunday approved a measure to prohibit the open carrying of guns and other weapons at the Capitol and surrounding grounds and at or near permitted public demonstrations statewide.
The measure passed the Democratic-led chamber on a 57-40 vote after nearly five hours of debate and heads back to the Senate, which will need to concur with changes made in the House before the bill heads to the governor. The Senate initially passed the measure last month on a 28-20 vote.
In addition to prohibiting openly carried weapons in the state Capitol or on the western part of the Capitol campus, the bill would bar people from carrying weapons, either on their person or in their vehicle, while attending a permitted demonstration at a public place or while being within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration.
Violation of the law would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, or both. Democratic Sen. Patty Kuderer, the bill's sponsor, has said she modeled the measure on a similar law enacted in Alabama.
“Intimidation, harassment and fear is not a victimless crime,” said Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, who cited an incident last May in Snohomish where people with weapons arrived downtown, saying they were there to protect businesses after a false rumor about a destructive protest that never occurred. “We cannot allow armed vigilantes to come into our beautiful downtowns, our beautiful streets, in the name of protecting something of which they do not value.”
Republicans argued that there are already laws on the books for harassment and other crimes related to guns.
Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, said there is a difference “between intimidating behaviors and someone exercising their 2nd Amendment rights.”
“Just because someone has a gun doesn’t mean they’re being intimidating,” she said.
House Democrats approved a handful of Republican floor amendments, including one that says a person must knowingly be in violation of the law in order for the criminal penalty to apply, another that specifies the 250-foot zone starts at perimeter of a protest, and one that clarifies that the proposed law does not apply to concealed carry of a firearm by someone with a valid concealed pistol license. Democrats also approved an emergency clause on the measure, which would make the law take effect immediately upon the governor's signature, instead of the usual 90 days after the end of session.
Republicans decried the emergency clause as an effort by Democrats to block a potential voter referendum on the measure.
“This is tampering with fundamental rights and the people must be heard on this policy," Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said during debate.
While openly carried guns have been banned in both the public galleries of the Senate and House chambers and in public hearing rooms at the Capitol’s legislative office buildings since 2015, people can still openly carry weapons in the main public areas of the Washington Capitol and on the grounds of the Capitol campus.
Permitted concealed weapons have been banned from the Senate public gallery since 2018, but they are allowed in the House public gallery. The Capitol building has been closed to the public since last March because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Capitol campus grounds are open and have drawn protests including people carrying weapons to oppose coronavirus restrictions, and then, after the election, the outcome.
In December, there was a shooting that injured one person during a clash between protesters in a parking lot near the Capitol’s two press houses. And in early January, supporters of former President Donald Trump, some of them armed, broke through a gate at Gov. Jay Inslee’s residence next to the Capitol.
“Defending every citizen's rights to have their voices heard requires a bold stance against the intimidation tactics that threaten that right,” said Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island. “This legislation, this law, will protect our ability to continue to rely on words and civil discourse to make change."
The proposed law in Washington would add permitted demonstrations and Capitol grounds surrounding the legislative building to the list of designated places where firearms are already prohibited statewide, including restricted areas of jails, courtrooms, taverns and commercial airports.