(The Center Square) – Bringing a gun to a protest in Washington without police permission could mean a year in jail under a bill passed by the state legislature on Tuesday.
Washington is one of 44 states that allow gun owners to keep firearms on their person in public, known as open carry. If signed into law, ESSB 5038 would empower police to ban guns and other weapons within 250 feet of public demonstrations. Knowing violations would be considered gross misdemeanors punishable with fines of up to $5,000 and or jail sentences of up to 364 days.
A legislative analysis of the bill referred to the state Capitol grounds in Olympia as a weapons-free zone which saw two shootings amid protests in December. In January, armed far-right groups occupied Gov. Jay Inslee's lawn, drawing calls on the left to enact stricter security around the Capitol campus in the form of a chainlink fence and national guard troops. The former is still standing today.
ESSB 5038 would also apply restrictions to weapons used by street protesters in Seattle, including metal knuckles, spring-blade knives, and explosives.
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House in March by a 57-40 vote. It cleared the Senate on Tuesday by a party-line vote of 28-21. Sponsored by state Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, ESSB 5038 heads to Inslee's desk, taking effect immediately upon receiving his signature.
The proposal would make Washington the ninth state and the District of Columbia to ban weapons at public demonstrations, something the bill defines as gatherings of 15 or more people. One amendment from state Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, keeps much of the bill from applying to concealed pistol license holders.
"Every state has laws on the books that limit where you can exercise your Second Amendment rights," Kuderer said. "You can't bring a gun into a bar or a courthouse in Washington as that poses a serious risk to public safety. This bill simply places similar restrictions on open carry weapons at the capitol campus and permitted demonstrations."
Washington Republicans have drawn a hard line against the bill on the grounds that it undercuts the constitutional right to bear arms. They say most protesters exercise peacefully.
"We had a long tradition of peaceful protest including gun rights groups that were very well organized and well behaved," House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told The Center Square. "We've had less disciplined groups these last couple of years. I don't want to upend how we do business in Olympia because we live in unruly times."
ESSB 5038 would be among 107 bills signed into law by Inslee during the 2021 legislative session, which is scheduled to wrap up on Sunday.