Several King County councilmembers are pushing a legislative package of gun control measures that emphasize safe storage and informed firearm sales. But gun rights organizations are ready to take legal action if the laws pass.
The primary legislation, which is being sponsored by councilmember Joe McDermott, would require that gun owners in King County keep their firearms in lock boxes, gun cages, or other forms of secure storage. Any person found violating the law after an initial warning will be found guilty of a misdemeanor and will be subject to either a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment in county jail for up to 90 days (law enforcement will be the primary enforcer of this ordinance).
The legislation would also mandate that gun sellers and firing ranges post signs that warn patrons of the health dangers of firearms. The signs would state: “WARNING: The presence of a firearm in the home significantly increases the risk of suicide, homicide, death during domestic violence disputes and unintentional deaths to children, household members, and others.” Businesses in violation of the proposed law would garner a civil penalty from King County Public Health of up to $100 everyday until signs are posted.
“It is past time that we take strong, decisive action to protect King County residents from gun violence,” Councilmember McDermott said at the July 24 press conference in Northgate where the legislation was announced. “We have to remember one thing: gun violence is preventable.”
McDermott’s safe storage and firearm warning signage ordinances are among a slew of other ordinances that he and two other councilmembers—Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Rod Dembowski—are promoting as the “gun safety action plan.” The package includes legislation requiring King County Executive Dow Constantine to collaborate with youth and their families on assessing gun violence among young adults, the creation of a county task force to develop strategies to reduce firearm injury and death, and a mandate that the county sheriff’s office destroy all forfeited guns under its control.
In 2015, over over 36,000 Americans died from gun violence, including 700 in Washington state. In King County, an average of 130 people die every year from gun violence—the vast majority of which are suicides. King County Public Health estimates that nearly a quarter of households in the county have firearms, and 15 percent of these gun owners store their weapons loaded and unsecured.
“We have a public health crisis on our hands,” McDermott said. “We have to take action and this gun safety action plan is a multifaceted response to that public health crisis.”
The councilmembers’ move comes at a time when the City of Seattle is gearing up to fend off a legal action from gun rights organizations over a similar safe gun storage ordinance that the city council passed in early July. On July 20, two organizations–the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and the National Rifle Association (NRA)–filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court arguing that Seattle elected leaders violated the preemption statute, a state law that largely prevents local governments from passing gun regulations. Specifically, the statute asserts that the state “fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation” including the registration, licensing, possession, purchase, sale, acquisition, and transfer of guns.
Naturally, the same organizations are displeased with the proposed legislation coming from King County. “I don’t think [McDermott will] find anybody in the firearms community who is against safe storage of firearms. What they dislike is the idea of a government mandate, because one size doesn’t fit all in how people store their firearms at home,” said Dave Workmen, senior editor of The Gunmag, a publication of SAF. “That’s really none of the county’s business.” Workmen added that firearm safety education campaigns in public schools would be a better approach.
While the NRA did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would pursue legal action against King County if the safe storage ordinances were passed, Workmen said that SAF will likely sue the county. “We’d have to see what the council does.”
County councilmembers argued that gun rights activists should support their legislation. “If the NRA exists to support responsible gun ownership, safe storage is nothing but responsible gun ownership,” said McDermott.
The preemption statute has killed attempts by local governments to regulate firearms in the past. In 2010, the City of Seattle passed an ordinance banning guns in public parks, but the measure was struck down in the courts following a lawsuit from gun rights organizations.
However, more recently, the state Supreme Court upheld Seattle’s ammunition sales tax with an 8-1 vote after the NRA and SAF sued following its passage in 2015. This, county councilmembers say, is evidence that their safe storage ordinance can withstand a legal challenge. “The [state] Supreme Court clearly ruled there that the state does not occupy the entire field with respect to guns,” county councilmember Rod Dembowski said at the July 24 press conference. “There is a path forward.”
Meanwhile, state-level efforts to enact gun regulations have had mixed success. During the 2018 legislative session, a ban on bump stocks was passed by lawmakers while other legislation faltered. In early July, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, gathered enough signatures to put a measure which would enhance background checks and raise the legal age to buy semi-automatic weapons to 21 (Initiative 1639) on the November ballot.
“Until the state and federal government take more bold action, it’s up to local governments to step in and do all that we can,” McDermott said.