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Ban on 'assault weapons' appears unlikely this year in WA Legislature

caption: Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, second from left, says banning so-called 'assault weapons' is complicated because of definitions.
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Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, second from left, says banning so-called 'assault weapons' is complicated because of definitions.
Northwest News Network

Despite a push by Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a ban on so-called “assault weapons” appears unlikely to pass the Washington Legislature this year.

“Just so you know, it’s not just this simple ‘hey ban assault weapons,'" Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat, said during a media availability with reporters on Tuesday.

In 1994, Inslee voted for the federal ban on assault weapons as a freshman member of Congress from central Washington. Two years later he lost re-election. Now, a quarter century later, Inslee is calling for a state ban on popular rifles like the AR-15.

“Because it is common sense that we do not need weapons of war on the streets of Washington," Inslee said Monday at a news conference organized by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have banned assault weapons according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

While Inslee and Ferguson, both Democrats, lend their political weight to the cause, families of those killed in mass shootings are offering their personal stories.

“Please remember that when the shooting starts, for some of us the loss is forever," Ann-Marie Parsons told the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

In 2017, Parsons' 31-year-old daughter Carrie was killed along with 58 others in the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.

Also testifying Tuesday was April Schentrup whose daughter Carmen was one of 17 killed in the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018. The family now lives in Washington.

“Each day has moments of emptiness without Carmen," Schentrup said. "But Washington brings us hope.”

Both Schentrup and Parsons urged lawmakers to pass both a ban on assault weapons and a 10 round limit on magazine capacity.

But Keely Hopkins with the National Rifle Association said the bills would interfere with personal safety.

“Semi-automatic firearms and firearms with standard capacity magazines are the mostly commonly owned firearms in Washington and are the firearms that are relied upon by Washingtonians for personal protection,” Hopkins said in testimony before the House committee.

The hearing drew hundreds of people on both sides of the issue, as did a similar hearing on Monday before a state Senate committee.

Majority Democrats in Olympia say they’re hopeful they can pass limits on magazine capacity this year. But they’re signaling the assault weapons ban is unlikely, despite the fact Inslee and Ferguson personally requested the legislation.

"The defining of what an assault weapon is, is very complicated," Jinkins said. "It is a complex kind of deep issue."

There's also this wrinkle: In 2018, Washington voters adopted Initiative 1639, which raised the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle and required an additional local background check.

Since it’s been less than two years since that initiative passed, any change to the law might require a two-thirds vote.

However, a December memorandum from Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even to Ferguson's chief of staff and legislative director concluded that the proposed assault weapon ban would not amend I-1639 and could thus pass with a simple majority vote.

For now, Jinkins is taking a wait-and-see approach. “We’ll see if it comes out of committee and then we’ll take the next step,” Jinkins said.

Even the state’s leading gun control lobby isn’t making an assault weapons ban a priority.

“It’s something that we discuss every year and we made the decision this year to really focus on high capacity magazines as well as everything else that's on our agenda,” said Renee Hopkins, CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

That agenda includes a bill to require background checks for ammunition sales and restrict access to firearms for people who are convicted of drunk driving for the second time.

Why you can trust KUOW