Washington lawmakers this year passed bills to ban bump stocks and to keep firearms out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers.
But while last month’s mass school shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school revived efforts for new restrictions on so-called assault weapons, the legislation couldn’t make it out of the Democratic-controlled Legislature that wrapped up this year’s session Thursday.
Firearms bills have long been a heavy lift in Olympia. Most gun-regulation proposals have stalled in recent years, even as voters in 2014 and 2016 approved gun-related ballot measures by large margins.
This year, as the push for new gun regulations grew after the Parkland shootings that killed 17, gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, urged their Washington state supporters to oppose further firearms restrictions.
Democrats hold a two-vote edge in the House and a one-vote margin in the Senate. A handful of Democrats come from suburban and rural districts, where lawmakers have been more wary of stricter regulations.
Meanwhile, Republicans have been unwilling to announce their support for more firearms regulations, say Democratic lawmakers, complicating efforts to hold tough votes.
Earlier this year, lawmakers were uncertain whether the Legislature could pass the ban on trigger devices known as bump stocks — made infamous by last fall’s Las Vegas concert shooting.
That bill ultimately passed the House and Senate, picking up Republican votes in each chamber.
After the Parkland shootings, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, sponsored Senate Bill 6620, which combined his earlier proposal on semi-automatic rifles with school-safety priorities that had been backed by Republicans. The more contentious parts of the bill would have expanded background checks to buy semi-automatic rifles, and raised the minimum age for their purchase.
The bill cleared a March 1 vote in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Democratic lawmakers appeared set more than once to bring it to the Senate floor.
But even as Frockt tried to line up the 25 votes needed to pass the bill, gun-rights organizations ramped up an opposition campaign.
The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action website posted seven alerts over two weeks urging its supporters to oppose the bill. The Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms posted a similar notice to its supporters.
Lawmakers wound up getting hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of emails opposing the gun bill, according to Frockt and Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
In an effort to counteract the NRA’s strength in grass-roots organizing, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility turned out in force for hearings and rallies in Olympia to support the firearms proposals.
That advocacy organization also helped generate hundreds of thousands of emails in support of SB 6620 and other gun-regulation bills.
As the session approached its end, House lawmakers encouraged the Senate to vote on Frockt’s bill. Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, said she collected signatures from 45 Democratic representatives on a letter to Senate leadership urging a floor vote. But in the end, Democratic leaders didn’t know if they had enough votes.
And with the clock winding down in a frenetic legislative session, lawmakers feared a gun debate would consume precious time when they still had to finish budget-related bills, Frockt said.
Frockt said he had one Republican vote secured, and one or two GOP maybes, but “there’s a hard core over there who’s opposed to everything on guns.”
Still, “I think if we put the bill on the floor, we’d have the votes,” he said.
Mass lobbying effort
Frockt’s proposal would have raised the age to legally buy semi-automatic rifles and some modified shotguns to 21 from 18, and would have required more rigorous background checks for buyers.
The bill also would have established a response system intended to help law enforcement handle school emergencies more quickly — a provision proposed by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in a separate bill.
Frockt said he was willing to compromise to get a deal.
In an email, Rivers wrote that the bill was “brought down by the part that would limit firearm purchases.”
NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide and Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, also cited their opposition to the age-limit provision.
The Citizens Committee sent out an alert urging 110,000 supporters in the state to oppose the deal, Gottlieb said. Carlyle said many of the messages he received were a type of form letter and often didn’t come from residents of his district.
“I would get them from Enumclaw and Vancouver and Bellingham as much as I would get from my own district,” he said, adding later, “In terms of sheer numbers, you have to admire the impressive lobbying effort of the NRA.”
One Democratic vote against Frockt’s bill was Sen. Dean Takko of Longview. Takko represents the 19th Legislative District, where Donald Trump comfortably beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The district is also home to Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who has been a reliable supporter of gun rights.
“There’s kind of a connection there between rural people, and … the Second Amendment seems to resonate more than it does in Wallingford,” Takko said.
“What I wish we would have done is just stripped out the piece on guns, which is a contentious part,” said Takko, and instead focus on the school-safety proposal.
Takko dismissed the argument that he’s pro-gun because of campaign contributions from the NRA. He voted for the bump-stock ban and the bill restricting domestic abusers from possessing firearms.
“I don’t vote because I got a contribution from anyone,” he said.
When it comes to gun regulations in his Snohomish County district, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said, “it’s not a cut-and-dry issue.”
His district voted for Clinton, but also chose GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant over Inslee. Like Takko, Hobbs voted for this year’s other gun proposals.
But SB 6620, “came kind of late,” he said and, “I don’t think it was fully vetted.”
Geoff Potter of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility said polling commissioned by his group shows broad support for gun regulations. In a February poll, 67 percent of likely voters surveyed statewide said they would support additional background checks for so-called assault weapons.
“The Washington state Legislature is out of step as an institution with where the people are on the issue of firearms,” he said.
The alliance could bring another gun-regulation initiative for this year’s election ballot, Potter said, but no decision has been made.
Kloba, who sent the letter to Senate leaders, said it will be tough for her to face voters, having not passed the semi-automatic-rifle regulations.
“It is going to be a difficult conversation to look into the eyes of people who really expected us to do something,” she said.