LONGVIEW, Wash. — A wave of new state and federal rules are set to change how Washingtonians purchase, transfer and store firearms starting today.
On Jan. 1, voter-approved I-1639 raised the minimum age to purchase a “semiautomatic assault rifle” to 21, though those between 18 and 21 years old can possess them in certain situations.
The rest of the initiative kicks in today, bringing new background checks, fees and training requirements and potential legal liabilities for owners who don’t lock up their guns.
Also today, and separately from I-1639, Washington law enforcement agencies will become responsible for processing handgun transfers, a job previously handled by the FBI. As a result, concealed pistol license holders will no longer be able to walk out with purchased handguns on the same day.
Initiative 1639 passed with 59 percent of the vote in Washington last year, with supporters pointing to studies showing that guns involved in suicides and accidental injuries are often obtained from the residences of a friend or relative. Advocates also pointed out that gun purchasing needed tightening because the large majority of guns used in mass shootings are obtained legally.
But the measure was unpopular in Cowlitz County, where 61 percent of the voters opposed it despite its relevance to the shooting of Edgar Vazquez, a 13-year-old Kelso boy who died when he was accidentally shot and killed by his friend who found and discharged a loaded shotgun in his grandfather’s room at their Kelso home.
Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman has said that while he considers parts of the initiative unconstitutional, he does support the safe storage provision, which he said in February addressed a “gap in the law.”
Thurman said this week that he will enforce I-1639, but he wasn’t shy in expressing his distaste for it.
“We’re going to try to comply to the extent that will allow the citizens to continue to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” Thurman said. “The whole basis of this law is an infringement of their rights. … We are going to try to uninfringe those rights as much as we can.”
I-1639 adds in new safety requirements for “semiautomatic assault rifles,” which it defines as any rifle that uses the energy of each shot to chamber the next round and which requires a separate trigger pull to fire each shot. That definition covers the popular AR-15 style rifle as well as semiautomatic hunting rifles and shotguns.
Starting today, those seeking to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle must show proof that they have completed a gun safety training program within the previous five years. (Those who purchased a semiautomatic assault rifle before July 1 are exempt.)
The training must come from a law enforcement agency, college or university, nationally recognized gun training organization, or a gun training school with certified instructors. But there is no specific curriculum other than six general topics, so agencies have wide latitude in conducting training events.
“Nobody’s established any guidelines,” Kelso Police Chief Darr Kirk said. “They’ll throw out terms like ‘accredited,’ ‘recognized,’ but they haven’t told anybody what they’re looking for. This is a pretty vague directive.”
The Cowlitz County sheriff’s office’s first public training for gun purchasers on Wednesday wrapped up in a half hour. The roughly 30 people in attendance received certificates fulfilling the initiative’s requirements, and the Sheriff’s Office plans to hold more training events, with at least one scheduled for July 26.
I-1639 doesn’t explicitly require that gun owners securely store their guns, and it doesn’t ask law enforcement to inspect homes to make sure guns are stores safely.
But the law does create potential criminal consequences for gun owners who don’t.
“Secure storage” requires a gun to be kept unloaded and locked securely. The law does not mandate a specific place or way a gun must be stored.
“Nothing says it has to be in a safe,” Cowlitz County Deputy Justin Taylor said during sheriff’s office I-1639 training session last week. “It just has to be securely stored.”
Starting today, if a child or other person legally prohibited from possessing a gun injures or kill someone, the owner could be charged with a felony if he or she “reasonably should have known” the gun could be accessed by a prohibited person. If the gun is merely used in an intimidating or alarming way, or in the commission of a crime, the owner could be charged with a gross misdemeanor.
There are two exceptions: If the gun is used in self-defense, or if the gun is stolen and the owner reports the theft to police within five days of finding out, they would not be charged. And as before, minors can still use guns under parental supervision.
Hypothetical questions arose during and after the sheriff’s office training session: Does a locked house count as secure storage? What if a prohibited person is found years after taking the gun to have acted in self-defense?
Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen said he’ll handle incidents on a case-by-case basis.
“The best way to say it is, there’s a lot of different factual scenarios that create substantial difficulties in enforcing the initiative, or this particular portion of the new law,” Jurvakainen said. “And that’s why it’s so case-by-case, fact-pattern specific.”
Thurman said the sheriff’s office won’t actively seek out unsafe storage cases.“There’s no proactive part of this we’re gonna be doing other than the training,” Thurman said. “The criminal part of it really comes into the storage issue. If a gun is taken and used in the commission of a crime, then that would violate … the criminal statute. ... If they come to our attention we’ll document it, and ultimately it’ll be a prosecutor decision.”
Starting today, local police chiefs and sheriffs will also be required to perform an enhanced background check whenever a person attempts to purchase a semiautomatic assault rifle.
“It’s going to be an increase” in work for the Sheriff’s Office to process those checks, Thurman said, but he said he’ll have a better idea of the impact after the law goes into effect.
Gun buyers are already required to waive their right to confidentiality of their mental health records when purchasing a pistol. Starting today, that requirement will extend to semiautomatic assault rifles. The Washington State Patrol and Department of Licensing are developing a system to verify once a year that a pistol or semiautomatic assault rifle owner is still eligible to own those firearms, and under I-1639, that system must be finished by July 1, 2020.
Customers still will be able to buy a basic long gun and walk out with it the same day. But new federal rules going into effect today separately from I-1639 will require waiting periods for all handgun buyers, including those with concealed pistol licenses.
Under I-1639, semiautomatic assault rifle purchases will also have a 10-day waiting period, and non-Washington residents are barred entirely from buying them.