With less than two weeks left in the session, state lawmakers introduced new bills in response to the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Introduced Friday, Feb. 23, Senate Bill 6620 (and its companion, House Bill 3004) would raise the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21. The Parkland shooter was a 19-year-old who had legally purchased an AR-15 rifle. Bringing back a debate from a previous bill, the new bill would require that purchaser to undergo a federal and state background check as well.
“You cannot really address this issue in full unless you do some reasonable things around these particular firearms that are being used over and over in mass killings,” said the senate bill’s prime sponsor and Vice Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee David Frockt (D-Seattle).
The legislation would also create a mechanism for students to report dangerous behavior and would require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to allocate grants to school districts to implement emergency response systems.
The bill was scheduled for a hearing with less than 24-hours notice and lawmakers voted to suspend the five-day public notice requirement, yet the Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing room was packed with people on both sides of the issue on Tuesday, Feb. 27.
According to Sen. Frockt, the new gun bill would allocate $700,000 in the operating budget to schools for implementation of response and reporting programs. The bill also raises the licensing fee for dealers from $125 to $150 per year.
Because the fee increase and the funding for the program would affect the budget, the bill can be moved through committee without the deadlines facing bills that have no impact on the budget. The bill has until March 8 to become law. Sen. Frockt is optimistic that it has the support it needs to pass, despite no Republicans sponsoring the bill.
“I think we’re in a real desperate situation and the public wants action and not just talk,” Sen. Frockt said.
Washington state has not been immune to gun violence. In July 2016, a 19-year-old purchased an assault rifle legally from Cabelas and killed three people at a house party in Mukilteo. Paul Kramer, whose son Will was seriously injured in that shooting, testified in support of the bill at its hearing on Tuesday. “Were this proposed bill in effect as law two years ago, the Mukilteo shooting wouldn’t have happened as it did,” Kramer said.
“There was nothing marginal about those lives,” said Adam Cornell, a prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County. “And there was nothing marginal about the lives of those who died in Parkland and all the other mass shootings that have happened in this country, and will continue to happen if we don’t do something about it.”
According to Keely Hopkins, the stat liaison for the National Rifle Association, the bill would infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners and ignores the fact that most shootings are committed with handguns.
“The folks most likely to be affected by this are the least likely to commit crimes,” said firearms instructor Brett Bass of the Bellevue Gun Club.
One of the few rural Democrats in the state, Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) believes that gun regulations should be considered a separate issue from school safety measures. He said lawmakers are not considering the state’s constituency in the urban/rural divide. He added that while the bill only affects those 18 to 21 year olds, it chips away at Second Amendment rights. “Banning long guns from the possession of 18 year olds is not going to solve this problem,” he said. “Better security is.”
But the issues of school safety, education programs, and gun restrictions are appropriately coupled according to Policy Director for the Alliance for Gun Responsibility CEO Jeoff Potter.
“Components of this bill, whether it’s the school safety pieces, or the firearm pieces taken together as one single bill; they are the consensus for the position on firearms and safety in the country,” Potter said.
Washington state school shootings in recent years include one at Marysville Pilchuck High School in October 2014, when a student killed four others and himself, and another in at Freeman High School in September 2017 where a student killed one classmate and wounded three others.
Johna Munsen, a senior at Ingraham High School in Seattle and president of her school’s Junior State of America chapter (a political activism club), testified in support of the bill. She said that people are finally starting to take notice of student voices now that conversations around school shootings are coming up more. Her school and others around the nation are planning a school walk out on March 14 to protest gun violence.
“The whole point of this movement is just common sense and preventing tragedy,” Munsen said. “It’s not trying to take away the Second Amendment.”
This is an edited version of a report produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.