FILE — Washington gun shop owner

Lynnwood gun shop owner Tiffany Teasdale poses for a photo with a semi-automatic rifle in Lynnwood, Washington.

(The Center Square) — As guns fly off store shelves around the U.S., Washington state lawmakers are setting their sights on banning high-capacity magazines following a year of surging gun violence.

The Gun Violence Archive, which counts mass shooting deaths, reported 578 mass shootings of four or more victims between Jan. 1 and Nov. 26 of 2020—or 28% more than the 417 mass shootings reported in 2019.

The Brookings Institution estimates some three million more guns were sold than normal between March and June, bringing national gun sales to an all-time high as mass protests against police brutality began around the country.

KUOW reports that in Seattle alone, some 9,426 background checks for gun purchases were processed or 55% over the city's annual average. 

Sponsored by Washington Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, Senate Bill 5078 builds on efforts in the state legislature to slap stricter limits on ammunition sales. Gun control advocates say they could save lives in a mass shooting.

“People served best by high-capacity magazines are mass shooters,” said Emily Cantrell, a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. “The Second Amendment allows us the right to bear arms, but freedoms and rights come with responsibilities. And the right to own a gun does not give you the right to all the ammunition in the world.”

The bill bans high-capacity magazines capable of carrying more than 10 rounds of ammunition and includes fines up to $5,000 for violators. Those bought on or before the bill's passage would be exempt along with any hand-me-downs a gun owner receives after its passage.

In recent years, Washington has seen a number of tougher gun laws, from setting the age of gun ownership at 21 to requiring gun sellers to report sales to the state and law enforcement.

Guns are a common sight at protests around the open-carry state, a reality that's put a few Washington lawmakers on edge amid growing political violence.

To date, nine states and Washington, D.C. have banned or limited high-capacity magazines capable of carrying more than 10 or 15 rounds of ammunition. 

Robin Ball, who runs Sharpshooting Indoor Range & Gun Shop in Spokane, told state lawmakers on Monday that stricter gun laws would push gun owners out of Washington at the expense of local businesses like her own.

“Customers will cross state boards to purchase what you are proposing to restrict,” Ball said. “In this climate of COVID and the damages faced by business in the state, I would hope your focus would be on supporting businesses that continue to pay state and local taxes for the goods our communities and not a bill that will not impact community safety.”

One study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported high-capacity magazines reduced mass shooting deaths by about 62% based on 69 incidents over 28 years. Its authors acknowledged their data was too limited to offer firmer conclusions.  

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association which tracks gun sales and industry trends, reported earlier this month that 2020 saw a record 21 million background checks related to gun sales nationwide.

Those numbers top 2016's record of 15.7 million with 40% of sales coming from some 8.4 million first-time buyers. Of those first-time buyers, 40% were women. 

Testifying against the bill on Monday was Curtis Bingham, a gun rights advocate with the Washington Civil Rights Association, who argued it would hurt women who look to guns for self-defense.

“Consider if you will for a moment a woman walking alone in downtown Seattle from her office to her car,” Bingham said. “With a magazine capacity of 10 rounds, how will she defend her life against two, three, or more violent criminals? When she’s struggling with one hand to hold off her attacker, she can’t reload her 10-round magazine because reloading requires two hands.”

Studies show most murdered American women are likely to know their killer and few are likely to have or use a gun. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded intimate partner homicide accounts for up to 50% of women murdered in the nation. The majority of such homicides—between 67% and 80%—involved red flags beforehand including physical abuse, no matter which person was killed.

Based on FBI data from 2015, the nonprofit Violence Policy Center found that of 328 homicides in that year, just 16 saw a woman killing a man with a gun. 

On Monday, supporters of Senate Bill 5078 said running low on ammunition is precisely what they want to see happen to a mass shooter.

“When magazine capacity is limited, it forces the shooter to pause and reload,” said Cherie Rowe, vice president of Grandmothers Against Gun Violence. “The seconds it takes for a shooter to reload offers precious moments for the victims to either escape or law enforcement to intervene.”

Testifying in support of the bill on Monday was Ami Strahan, whose son was shot and killed on Sept. 13, 2017 in a mass shooting at Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington.

On that day the alleged shooter, Caleb Sharpe, armed with an AR-15 rifle and a .32 caliber pistol, killed Sam Strahan and wound three other students while carrying some 400 rounds of ammunition. He remains in custody and awaits trial in June.

According to police reports, Sharpe resorted to the 8-bullet pistol after his 30-round rifle jammed. Strahan says she believes that saved lives.

"The community is no place for [an AR-15]," Strahan said. "And when I hear someone say that folks have a right to live, I would ask you, the children at that school, did they have a right to live?"

A new Crosscut Elway poll shows 65% of Washington voters support regulating or banning high-capacity magazines, but gun control laws still have an uphill battle ahead of them in the high courts. 

In August, California's own high-capacity magazine ban was dealt a blow by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which recognized the magazines as “protected arms” under the Second Amendment.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.