As President Barack Obama called on Congress Wednesday to pass controversial bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, Washington state legislators remained divided on what kind of gun control measures to pursue on a state level.
Measures to keep mentally ill, violent offenders off the streets and increased penalties for juveniles who unlawfully possess guns have clear bipartisan support.
Yet some Senate Democrats are aiming higher, hoping to pass an assault weapons ban and crack down on background checks at gun shows — despite the Democratic caucus losing control of the Senate this year.
“I think some version of an assault weapons ban is still possible,” said Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle. “I’m not willing to take it off the table.”
Sen. Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads a majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats, remained tight-lipped Wednesday on what gun-control proposals could gain traction in the state Senate.
Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, also declined to comment on preliminary proposals.
“I don’t think that there’s a single point or a single issue that addresses the fear that the public has,” Tom said. “So we need to look at it in a comprehensive manner. We want to make sure that all Washingtonians are safe, but we also want to make sure we are not penalizing those who are behaving within their constitutional rights.”
In the state House, Democrats are focused on more modest gun-control battles they think they can win, said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Those include increasing penalties for gun crimes committed by juveniles and preventing the release of mentally ill violent offenders.
House Bill 1114 targets the release of violent offenders who are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, but who are not subject to being involuntarily committed.
“There is a gap in the law right now as to what constitutes competency for criminal purposes and what constitutes competency for civil purposes,” said Pedersen, who is sponsoring the bill.
“There was a guy in my district who shot a woman and killed her, who criminally had been arrested for a violent crime and was let free because he was incompetent in criminal terms,” he said. “The normal assumption is that (these offenders) would then be committed to a mental hospital for treatment, but that assumption is not necessarily accurate.”
Pedersen’s bill would also require violent felons to be evaluated at Western or another state hospital, rather than at community treatment facilities or jails, which Pedersen said lack the professionals qualified to make decisions about offenders’ mental competency.
House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said Wednesday that he supports measures addressing the release of mentally ill, violent offenders, even if he thinks some other gun control proposals — like an assault weapons ban — would be misguided.
“We don’t need to be alarmist about the whole thing,” DeBolt said. “What we do need to do is have a good solid plan that deals with mental health issues, because that’s a big issue in the process.”
DeBolt said the Republican caucus also supports measures to more severely punish juveniles who are caught with guns. A bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, would ensure that juveniles who unlawfully possess firearms are not eligible for deferred sentences, and that even first-time gun-possession offenses garner a minimum 10 days of confinement for juveniles.
In his inaugural address Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee spoke in general terms about support for gun control proposals and reforming the mental health system, but gave few specifics about policies he’d stand behind.
“Any failure to address the issue of violence in our communities and our schools will be intolerable,” Inslee said. “Common sense tells us that this solution will involve mental health and keeping guns out of the wrong hands.”
Pedersen said the power shift in the Senate makes it unclear whether more aggressive proposals can advance.
“We obviously have some constraints given the composition of the Senate,” Pedersen said Wednesday.