WA legislators are pushing new gun bills. Here’s what could pass

A batch of regulations are likely headed to Gov. Inslee’s desk – including one that would require reporting lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours.

Guns for sale at Wade's Eastside Guns in Bellevue

Guns for sale at Wade’s Eastside Guns in Bellevue on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. New gun control regulations, including new rules for gun dealers and mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns, have passed in the Washington state legislature. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

After the Washington Legislature passed a ban on the sale of many semiautomatic rifles in 2023, Everytown for Gun Safety ranked Washington among the top 10 states with the strongest regulations. 

But gun safety and responsibility advocates weren’t done with their work in Olympia, and have proposed a group of new regulations during the 2024 session, with a few proposals likely headed toward the governor’s desk – including one that would require people to report the theft of a firearm within 24 hours. 

The Legislature has considered multiple gun regulation proposals during most sessions since 2016, when Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order calling for a public health approach toward reducing gun-related violence and for setting up a statewide suicide-prevention plan.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, said the Democrats had to prioritize which of a dozen bills they realistically could get through this year’s short 60-day session. “This is absolutely a priority for our caucus,” Billig said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control’s latest state-by-state figures show Washington had 896 gun deaths in 2021, or 11.2 per 100,000 people – a 71% increase over 522 gun deaths in 2000. Massachusetts had the lowest rate in 2021, 3.4 gun deaths per 100,000, and Mississippi had the highest at 33.

Washington Office of Financial Management figures show that from 2017 to 2021, an average of 852 Washingtonians died annually from firearms. Sixty-nine percent of these were suicides and 28 percent were homicides. 

“We’re continuing to see the impacts of gun violence on our community,” Fitzgibbon said.

Firearms owners and gun industry representatives, who continue to fight new gun regulation proposals in the Legislature, say they are being unfairly targeted for the acts of criminals.

Two House proposals are likely headed to the governor’s desk: House Bill 1903 on reporting stolen guns and House Bill 2118 on gun dealer security measures. HB 2118 passed the Senate on Tuesday and HB 1903 passed out of the Senate on Wednesday.

HB 1903, sponsored by Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, passed out of the House in mid-February on a 57-40 party-line vote. Under this proposal, not reporting a stolen firearm would be a civil infraction, not a criminal one, with a potential fine of up to $1,000. The bill would require police to enter the missing firearm into a national database of lost or stolen firearms. 

At a Feb. 19 hearing before the Senate Law & Justice Committee, Berry said the goal would be for police to be notified of such thefts before the trail gets cold. In Washington between 2017 and 2021, an estimated 16,000 firearms were taken from private citizens. Only about 25 percent of lost and stolen firearms are reported to police.

Debates about gun laws not black and white

Liz Hjelmseth, 60, of Bellingham, and her husband, who both hunt, own roughly a dozen rifles and shotguns. “My gun rights are important to me,” she said after testifying to the committee. But she is also concerned about gun safety.

Liz Hjelmseth of Bellingham, a gun violence survivor, testified in Olympia on gun control legislation. She is a hunter and a gun owner who supports gun control. Here she shows a gun wound on her right arm, sustained when she was 8. (Ting-Li Wang for Cascade PBS)

Her angry older brother shot her with a 30-30 rifle when she was 8. One shell went through her arm and leg because she was crouching. She spent two years in and out of hospitals, had three reconstructive surgeries and still wears a brace on her right leg. 

After 2012’s Sandy Hook mass shooting, which killed 26 including 20 elementary school kids, “I felt I had to do something to stop this epidemic,” she said. But Hjelmseth is seeking to balance gun safety with gun rights: “I still hope we can come together.” 

Also speaking in favor of HB 1903 was Betty Taylor of Federal Way, whose grandson Ezra was one of three innocent bystanders killed in a 2021 shooting outside the La Familia sports pub and restaurant in Burien. Joshua Puloka, who had been convicted of manslaughter in 2014, is charged with three counts of murder. As a felon, Puloka wasn’t supposed to possess a firearm.

“How did this person happen to have a gun?” Taylor asked the committee. After the hearing, she said gun control has become her passion because of what happened to her grandson. 

A few minutes later, the Law and Justice Committee moved on to discussing SB 2118. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland, would require dealers to adopt security measures including alarms, video surveillance systems and better record-keeping. It would require dealers to be at least 21 and undergo a background check, and carry liability insurance of at least $1 million to cover each theft. Dealers who average less than $1,000 in sales in a month would be exempt from many of these proposed requirements. 

Walen said this bill would help trace people who buy guns for people not allowed to purchase firearms who then commit gun-related crimes.

In 2006, a mentally ill Naveed Afzal Haq shot six women at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one, Pam Waechter. Haq bought his two pistols at Tri-Cities gun shops.

“I can’t help but feel employees at the gun dealers might have noticed symptoms of mental health illness, but sold the guns to him anyway,” Cheryl Stumbo, a survivor of the Jewish Federation shooting and a gun responsibility advocate, told the committee. 

The other side

Meanwhile at the same hearings, National Rifle Association members, gun owners and gun dealers argued that they are being unfairly targeted.

“Because criminals use guns, our rights are being eviscerated,” said Washington resident Teo Morca of Seattle. 

Aoibheann Cline of the National Rifle Association said concerning HB 1903: “This bill won’t reduce crime. It doesn’t even address crime. It serves as punishment for victims of crimes.” Anthony Mixer of the Young Republicans said the bill’s intent is to intimidate gun owners.

Concerning HB 2018, Walla Walla County Sheriff Mark Crider, a retired FBI agent who specialized in bank robberies, noted that unlike the requirements of HB 2118, banks are not required to have cameras. He said there are roughly 200 federally licensed gun shops in Washington, along with roughly 1,600 licensed gun sellers working out of their homes. 

Crider argued that HB 2118’s video requirement is too expensive and too intrusive for dealers working out of their homes. “This is an impossible intrusion on a personal liberty,” he said. 

GOP senators fought unsuccessfully against HB 2118 when the Senate passed it on Feb. 12. It passed out of the House on Tuesday.

“It hurts the ability of individuals to purchase a firearm. Once this becomes so difficult, we’ll see people going outside the system,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen and chairman of the state Republican Party. Rep. Kevin Watson, R-Stevenson, added: “We will see an uptick in people going to other states to bring in guns.”

Also on the agenda

Other gun bills that passed their chamber of origin by the Feb. 13 deadline and appear to still be in play with less than two weeks left in the legislative session include:

Senate Bill 5985, sponsored by Sen. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, would tweak the Washington State Patrol’s background check program. Both the House and Senate have passed this bill, but it won’t head to the governor’s desk until differences are worked out between the chambers.

Senate Bill 6246, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, would require a court to prohibit a person judged incompetent to stand trial from having the right to own a firearm, if that person is not committed to a facility for treatment. Democrats, with some GOP help, passed this in the Senate. The House passed it on Tuesday, on a bipartisan 84-11 vote, and it awaits a discussion between the houses about amendments. 

Kimberly Wyatt of the King County Prosecutor’s Office testified that this measure would help quickly sort through who can and cannot own firearms. The NRA’s Cline testified it would discourage mentally ill people from seeking treatment.

Senate Bill 5444, sponsored by Sen. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, would prohibit a person from knowingly having a firearm at libraries, zoos, aquariums, transit stations and transit facilities – with some specified exceptions. The Senate passed this along party lines, and it passed the House on Tuesday.

Related but not a gun regulation:

House Bill 5790, sponsored by Dhingra, would require all school districts to have bleeding control equipment and automated external defibrillators or AEDs on each school campus. The Legislature previously encouraged AED placement in most high schools. The bill would also require training for some school employees. The discussion about this proposal focused on emergency first aid while waiting for medical professionals to arrive on campus. The bill was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.

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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8