Washington’s gun control ballot initiative industry has recently announced its latest measure, “The Reduce Assault Weapon Violence Initiative,” intended for the November 2018 election. According to the proponent, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility (WAGR), this initiative will address “the root causes of recent tragedies.”
As was the case with WAGR’s previous ballot initiatives – I-594 (2014) mandating a “universal background check” for gun sales, loans, gifts and other “transfers,” and I-1491 (2016), imposing gun surrender and seizure based on allegations of threats of harm – this latest effort follows the rejection of bills proposing similar restrictions and bans by the state’s legislature earlier this year.
Key features of this 22-page Initiative are:
- Adopting an excessively broad definition of “semiautomatic assault rifle,” being “any rifle which utilizes 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.”
- Raise the minimum age to possess or purchase an “assault rifle” to 21 years of age. Limited exceptions for possession will apply to persons between 18 and 21 years of age.
- Besides the increased age limit, another new requirement for eligibility to purchase an “assault rifle” is proof of mandatory training that meets the requirements set out in the Initiative.
- “Enhanced background checks,” new waiting periods and fees. The Initiative refers to a new “statewide firearms background check system,” as yet to be established, that would potentially be “more comprehensive” than the federal NICS check and apply to all firearm sales and transfers. A waiting period of ten business days for sales and transfers of “assault rifles,” where “transfer” includes a loan, gift or other change of possession or ownership. To “help offset” these new administrative requirements, the Initiative authorizes a $25 fee on each purchaser of an “assault rifle,” which fee may be increased periodically.
- New “Safe Storage” Crimes. Any person who fails to secure a firearm faces potential criminal liability for the new crime of “community endangerment” should a prohibited person gain access to the firearm. There is a limited exception where a firearm is acquired as a result of an unlawful entry, but this applies only if the theft is reported to law enforcement within five days.
- Enhanced framework for a state gun registry. Washington State’s Department of Licensing already collects paperwork on handgun sales and transfers (and the same forms must be transmitted by the dealer to local law enforcement). Under the Initiative, the same documentation requirements –listing the make, model and manufacturer’s number of the weapon along with the purchaser’s personal information –would apply to “assault rifle” transactions.
- Expanded enforcement authority by administrative agencies. The Initiative directs the state’s Department of Licensing to develop a process to verify, “on an annual or more frequent basis,” that persons who acquire handguns or “assault rifles” remain legally eligible to possess a firearm, and to notify law enforcement to “take steps to ensure such persons are not illegally in possession of firearms.” In developing this process the Department is authorized to “consult with individuals from the public and private sector” through an advisory committee, or otherwise.
While this Initiative promises an “enhanced background check system” for “assault rifles,” it contains a clear sign that, regardless of whether the Initiative succeeds, WAGR and its supporters aren’t convinced that these background check “enhancements” will be sufficient, and will continue to press for additional restrictions in future initiatives: Section 3 authorizes “the state, through the legislature or initiative process, [to] enact a statewide firearms background check system” that is even “more comprehensive” than the federal National Instant Background Check System (NICS).
Residents of Washington State are poorly served by such “common-sense solutions” to prevent gun crime that promise much but deliver little. Those who followed the developments related to 2014’s Initiative 594 will recall that it was promoted on claims that expanding background checks to private firearm sales, as well as loans and gifts, would make “a huge difference when it comes to the rate of gun violence,” yet the first prosecution for a violation did not occur until more than two years after enactment and was based on a transfer that was already prohibited by federal law; the second reported prosecution, in 2017, also involved alleged conduct that was already illegal. A 2017 study concluded the law had “little measurable effect.” And last month, in a discussion of a new gun control ballot measure, Washington State’s Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a supporter of the Initiative, was asked whether I-594’s “intensive background check” included rifles and replied, “I don’t have an answer for how that Initiative worked on that issue.”
Supporters of this latest attack on the Second Amendment will be collecting valid voter signatures to make the November ballot and spending an avalanche of money to publicize and promote the Initiative. Voters, however, should remember that despite the repeated assertions that accompany each new Initiative – that these “comprehensive,” “evidence-based solutions” will “ensure safer schools and neighborhoods”– the major discernable impact, should this Initiative pass, will be to drive up the costs of lawful gun ownership, burden firearm businesses with even more paperwork, impose ever-more complex compliance obligations, and pave the way for new and even greater restrictions on law-abiding citizens.