Last March, Sarah East led a group of 800 citizens in Longview’s “March for Our Lives” event. Now, she’s advocating that Washingtonians pass the state’s latest initiative to prevent gun violence.
“I don’t think that kids getting shot in their homeroom should be normal. I just want all the adults to get together and acknowledge we have room to improve,” East said.
Wally Wentz, owner of Gator’s Custom Guns in Kelso, agrees that gun violence is a problem, but he says Initiative 1639 misses its mark.
“Does the evil- and wrong-doer care how many laws we make if they don’t even follow the ones we have?” Wentz said. “I expect our representatives to come up with a solution, not a buzzword Band-Aid for their political gain.”
I-1639 would mandate background checks for what it calls “semi-automatic assault rifles,” similar to what is required for handguns, require firearm safety training, raise the minimum age for purchase and possession of such weapons from 18 to 21 and establish storage standards for all firearms. It would not outlaw semi-automatic rifles.
I-1639 responds to recent incidents of gun violence, including a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people. The initiative’s intent statement says it is focused on increasing public safety and reducing gun violence, especially for children and teenagers.
If the ballot measure passes, Washington would have the nation’s “first-of-its-kind gun responsibility policy,” according to the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a Seattle-based nonprofit advocating for the passing of the initiative.
The Alliance has donated more than $4.5 million to the campaign, and it was the leading supporter of the state’s last two voter-approved state initiatives about firearms (I-594, a 2014 measure that requires background checks for private gun sales and transfers, and I-1491, a 2016 ballot measure that allows law enforcement and family members to request the court prevent a person from possessing or accessing a firearm).
But initiative 1639 faces hefty criticism from several organizations on the other side of Washington’s firearm debate. The National Rifle Association and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms — both of which opposed the state’s last two gun-related initiatives — have contributed to the $500,000-pot for the “no” campaign. These groups argue I-1639 infringes on the Second Amendment.
Kelso resident Kelburn Koontz organized a “Stand for the Second” rally in Longview last March. He firmly opposes I-1639 because it “adds more red tape to the free exercise of a natural right,” he said.
“I-1639 is 30 pages worth of anti-gun rhetoric and is also a thinly veiled gun grab. It is a partial gun ban on young adults, and an attack on the poor that wish to practice prudent and responsible self-defense,” Koontz told The Daily News.
Koontz said he’s especially upset with how I-1639 “politicizes the language of state law” by introducing a loaded definition of semi-automatic rifles, labeling them “assault” weapons.
“It is not an objective description, rather it is a term designed to elicit an emotional response,” Koontz said. “Why don’t they add ‘defense’ instead of ‘assault’? A modifier is not needed, so there is no objective reason to add one.”
Koontz added that the definition paints too broad a category of rifles as assault weapons.
I-1639 defines a “semi-automatic assault rifle” as “any rifle that uses a portion of the energy of a firing cartridge to extract the fired cartridge case and chamber the next round, and which requires a separate pull of the trigger to fire each cartridge.”
This definition classifies everything from a .22-caliber hunting rifle to an AR-15 as an assault weapon, said Scott Hooper, owner of On Target Outdoors, a gun shop in Castle Rock.
Local Range Master Rob Mowell said it’s “ludicrous” to call most semi-automatic rifles assault weapons.
“Do you know what most people use the AR-15 for? They use them for shooting rats and prairie dogs,” Mowell said.
Hooper added that “the AR-15 is just a semi-automatic sporting rifle that the military adopted and reconfigured to meet their needs. It was never a military gun that all of the sudden the private market got a hold of.”
East herself, even though she supports the measure, said she fears “classifying weapons that aren’t assault rifles as assault rifles” is a blanket approach that might deter some gun owners from supporting the initiative’s “common sense” laws that won’t affect most gun owners.
“I’m not sure it would go through right now. I think it might be an initiative we will have to visit again and rewrite if it doesn’t go through,” East said. “There are things in it I’m not sure people will be able to compromise on.”
One part of the initiative that should stick around no matter what are the requirements for safe gun storage, East said. The initiative mandates that gun owners store their firearms in a “secure” location or with devices designed to prevent unauthorized use.
One section of the initiative highlights why its drafters think there is a need for secure storage laws.
“Firearms taken from the home by children or other persons prohibited from possession firearms have been at the heart of several tragic gun violence incidents,” says the initiative.
A court case in Kelso last April followed one such incident, in which a 13-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed his friend with a loaded handgun he found at his grandparents’ house.
I-1639 would put in place felony charges for gun owners whose firearms are taken and used by anyone barred from owning a gun, hinging on whether the weapon was left where the owner should “reasonably know” a prohibited person could access it. Gun retailers would be required to post warnings that owners could face criminal charges if their weapons are left unsecured.
Opponents of the initiative say it’s unfair to charge gun owners for a crime they didn’t commit.
“Imagine a situation in which somebody is storing a gun in their own house in a manner they deem acceptable and somebody breaks in and steals that weapon. If that weapon is used in a crime, the registered owner can be charged with a felony,” Koontz said. “The onus is not on the thief, but the victim of theft.”
The Castle Rock gun retailer added that the initiative’s definition for secure gun storage is not clear.
“It’s very vague,” Hooper said. “It doesn’t say how a gun has to be locked up. It just says if somebody gets a hold of it ... and they use it in a crime, then you, the gun owner, can be charged with up to a class C felony and a year in prison.”
East argued that making sure firearms are in secure, locked storage spaces should be part of the “huge responsibility” that comes with owning a gun.
“I actually really like that clause because I think it puts more responsibility on the owner to make sure their firearm is kept in a safe place,” East said. “It’s a machine that can kill people, and you need to protect people.”
Many supporters of I-1639 recognize that the initiative is not the end-all for gun violence. But it’s a step in the right direction, said Sharry Edwards, a volunteer with the Sandy Hook Promise national gun control group.
“It addresses preventative measures. This initiative make sure firearms don’t get into the hands of someone at risk of hurting themselves or someone else,” said Edwards, who lives in Federal Way. “We can’t completely avoid that, but it’s a step.”
The Alliance for Gun Safety says statistical evidence supports the notion that I-1639 would reduce gun violence. For example, raising the legal age to purchase a pistol or semi-automatic rifle from 18 to to 21 “makes sense because studies show that 18- to 21-year-olds commit a disproportionate number of firearm homicides in the United States,” the initiative reads.
Increasing the age limit for possessing a semi-automatic rifle really rankles Wentz, the Kelso gun dealer. He said it doesn’t make sense because the government is already giving actual assault rifles to people under 21.
“We accept a young man or woman’s voluntary for service to their country at 18 years old, and to hand him a taxpayer-provided, real assault rifle — not what these people are calling an assault rifle — and tell him he doesn’t have the right to purchase one when he’s on leave with his first check,” Wentz said. “Who on God’s green earth has the right to deny a less than 21-year-old a constitutional right?... Take all 29 other pages away and tell me how this should even be on the ballot.”
Wentz added that the initiative would do little to stop gun violence because it fails to address the perpetrators of the act.
“Proponents of this law want to do something, and I don’t think that’s misguided,” Wentz said. “But I think what they are hoping to achieve is unachievable because the disease is not the law-abiding citizen. The disease the the person who is mentally ill or who is criminal by nature.”
“Why don’t we do something for the mentally ill instead of turning them back to the street where they came from because we don’t want to deal with it?” Wentz asked. “This is an attempt to stimulate thought, and it’s an attempt to cure something, but they aren’t looking at the cause of what they want to cure.”
If this initiative doesn’t address the problem, Edwards said both sides should work together on figuring out better solutions. Right now, the opposing sides are “working against each other,” she said.
“I think help in writing this initiative from gun owners and members of the NRA would be a good idea,” Edwards said. “It’s a vision of mine that someday we can all come together because it’s the only way we are going to lower the gun violence in this country.”
And no matter what voters decide on Nov. 6, East said she hopes gun owners take the initiative’s suggestions for gun safety and storage to heart.
“Maybe you don’t agree with all of it or you won’t vote for it, but ... regardless of what the outcome is, I hope neighbor-to-neighbor we can all agree to not be so cavalier with our firearms,” East said.