In a July 23rd op-ed, Joe McDermott, the Council Chair of King County, Washington, introduced a multi-prong “King County Gun Safety Action Plan” aimed at reducing gun violence.
The plan requires that warning signs be posted at gun shops, as well as any place a firearm is sold or discharged, to advise about “the very real and significant risk to health and life inherent with firearm ownership.” (The language of these signs is to be approved by the local board of health.) Second, gun owners will be required to securely store firearms and ammunition at all times and in all places. And, citing recent school tragedies, the third proposal instructs the County to collaborate with local youth to identify “youth-informed solutions” for reducing gun crime. According to one source, a failure to post the warning signage would expose violators to civil penalties of up to $100 per day; a violation of the storage mandate would be a criminal misdemeanor punishable by jail time of up to 90 days and a fine of up to $1,000.
Additional proposals put forward include an ordinance to compel the King County Sheriff’s Office to destroy forfeited weapons in working condition and those that have been turned in by gun owners, and a demand that Washington State lawmakers repeal the current firearm preemption law. This would clear the way for even more drastic “solutions.” Upon repeal of the state preemption law, the King County Gun Safety Action Plan will immediately impose a ban on the sale and possession of “semi-automatic, high velocity weapons” and “high capacity magazines,” and raise the minimum age for possession or purchase of a firearm to 21 years of age.
This far-fetched “Action Plan” raises significant legal and practical concerns.
Although the mandatory warning signs must “provide immediate contact information for suicide-prevention and mental-health resources for individuals who might be in crisis,” nothing in the plan allocates government funding or resources to realistically address the problems of persons (whether gun owners or not) at risk of self-harm.
Last month, the NRA and others sued the City of Seattle to enjoin a gun storage measure like the one in the “Action Plan.” The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, is based on the firearm preemption law’s exclusive reservation of authority over the “entire field of firearms regulation within the boundaries of the state” to the State Legislature. Local laws and ordinances that are inconsistent with state law “shall not be enacted and are preempted and repealed, regardless of [their] nature.” As is the case with Seattle, municipalities in the State of Washington lack the power to pass laws that regulate the manner in which residents may possess firearms.
Apart from the preemption issue, the Action Plan’s requirement that every gun owner securely store firearms and ammunition “at all times, on all premises” would mean that firearms cannot legally be kept available for immediate use by police and corrections officers, those being victimized by a domestic abuser or stalker, operators of businesses in high-crime areas, ordinary homeowners, and other law-abiding residents of the state. According to a 2015 report on crime by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), a crime against the person occurs every 6.8 minutes in the state, including a violation of a no-contact or protection order every 40.4 minutes. Property crimes are even more frequent and take place at the rate of one every 1.8 minutes, with a robbery every two hours and a burglary every 13.2 minutes (the report lists robbery and burglary as property, not person, crimes because the primary object is the taking of something of value from the victim).
A Seattle and King County Public Health analysis on firearms and crime statistics dated the same year is equally informative. Three out of four firearm hospitalizations in King County were due to unspecified “assaults.” The great majority of firearm deaths were suicides rather than homicides (68% and 29%, respectively), although for children 18 years and under, firearm suicides occurred at about half the rate of homicides. Accidental shootings made up a very small part of firearm homicides – between one and four percent. Motives for homicides include robbery, and gang and drug crimes. For victims aged between 18 and 29, for example, 21% of homicides were gang-related and 15% were drug-related; “robbery” accounted for a further five percent, and “revenge” was listed for eight percent.
The same document notes the absence of information tying these homicides to “risk factors” like “firearm ownership.” A statistical analysis in 2014 on King County gun homicides is more explicit: “Firearm ownership history (e.g. stolen, legally obtained) not collected.” In addition, information on criminal history was “missing” for three out of five suspects (58%), although out of the remaining group, almost ten percent had a prior conviction, more than five percent were on parole or probation, and almost six percent were wanted on warrants or other charges or were out on bail or bond at the time of the offense.
Regardless of how King County residents keep their firearms, “firearm ownership” or storage practices have not been associated in any way with these crimes. To the extent information is available, the data indicate a sizable proportion of gun homicides involved criminals who were likely already precluded from lawfully possessing a firearm under state or federal law. (It follows, too, that gang bangers, robbers, and the other perpetrators of gun crimes will comply with the proposed “safe storage” mandate in the same manner as they obey existing laws on legal weapon possession and use.)
The most peculiar part of the King County Action Plan is the comprehensive ban on the possession and sale of “semi-automatic, high velocity weapons.” Without more, the language is ridiculously overbroad and will encompass most modern firearms, air guns, BB guns, and flare guns. Besides making other parts of the plan redundant, this would certainly run afoul of the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment and the Washington State Constitution (the “right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself, or the state, shall not be impaired…”).
Overall, it is hard to tell how the components of the Action Plan will accomplish any meaningful change in public safety or the behavior of violent criminals, apart from making honest citizens more vulnerable by impeding their ability to defend themselves. What is obvious, though, is the credibility gap: anti-gun activists who roll out purported “common sense” gun laws, together with the oft-raised assertion that they aren’t going to take anyone’s guns away, shouldn’t be surprised at how few people are willing to take them at their word.