A ban on dozens of semi-automatic rifles cleared the Washington State Legislature on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 and the Governor is expected to sign it into law.
The high-powered firearms — once banned nationwide — are now the weapon of choice among young men responsible for most of the country’s devastating mass shootings.
The ban comes after multiple failed attempts in the State's Legislature, and in a year that has seen the most mass shootings during the first 100 days of a calendar year since 2009.
The Washington law would cover more than 50 gun models, including AR-15s, AK-47s and similar style rifles, which fire one bullet per trigger pull and automatically reload for a subsequent shot. The bill bans their future sale, distribution, manufacture and importation, although some exemptions are included for sales to law enforcement agencies and the military in Washington.
The law would go into effect immediately once it's signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has long advocated for such a ban. When the bill passed the state House in March, Inslee said he’s believed in it since 1994 when, as a member of the U.S. Congress, he voted to make it a federal law.
“We refuse to accept gun violence as normal. Gun violence, in all its forms, can be prevented,” Inslee tweeted after the legislation first passed the Senate, thanking the Democratic lawmakers who control both chambers.
A ban on so-called assault weapons is far off in the U.S. Congress. But President Joe Biden and other Democrats have become increasingly emboldened in pushing for stronger gun controls — and doing so with no clear electoral consequences.
Nine states including California, New York and Massachusetts, along with the District of Columbia, have already passed similar bans, and the laws have been upheld as constitutional by the courts, according to Washington's Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
In Colorado, lawmakers debated on Wednesday about a slew of aggressive gun control bills, but a sweeping ban on semi-automatic firearms faces much stiffer odds.
When Mr. Biden and other lawmakers talk about “assault weapons,” they are using an inexact term to describe a group of high-powered guns or semi-automatic long rifles, like an AR-15, that can fire 30 rounds quickly without reloading. By comparison, New York Police Department officers carry a handgun that shoots about half that much.
During debate on the Washington state bill, Democrats spoke of frequent mass shootings that have killed people in churches, nightclubs, grocery stores and schools. Sen. Liz Lovelett of Anacortes said that kids' concerns about school shootings need to be addressed.
“They are marching in the streets. They are asking for us to take action,” Lovelett said. “We have to be able to give our kids reasons to feel hopeful.”
Republican state lawmakers opposed the ban, with some contending school shootings should be addressed by remodeling buildings to make them less appealing as targets and others saying it infringes on people's rights to defend themselves.
“HB 1240 clearly violates our state and federal constitutions, which is why it will end up in court immediately,” Sen. Lynda Wilson of Vancouver said.
Some gun-control legislation in other states has been struck down since last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which set new standards for reviewing the nation’s gun laws. The ruling says the government must justify gun control laws by showing they are “consistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
Washington's ban was part of a gun legislation package proposed by Inslee and the state attorney general. The other two bills approved by the Legislature this session include a 10-day waiting period for gun purchases and a bill that would hold gunmakers liable for negligent sales.
The first would allow people whose family members die from gun violence to sue if a manufacturer or seller “is irresponsible in how they handle, store or sell those weapons.” Under the state’s consumer-protection act, the attorney general could file a lawsuit against manufacturers or sellers for negligently allowing their guns to be sold to minors, or to people buying guns legally in order to sell them to someone who can’t lawfully have them.
The second bill would require gun buyers to show they've taken safety training. It would also impose a 10-day waiting period for all gun purchases — something that's already mandatory in Washington when buying a semi-automatic rifle.
Mr. Biden signed a sweeping bipartisan gun law last summer, the most significant legislative response to gun violence in decades. The U.S. Congress had imposed restrictions on the manufacture and sale of semi-automatic rifles in 1994 but allowed the restrictions to expire a decade later, lacking the votes to counter the powerful gun lobby.