Emboldened by voter approval of a background checks initiative last fall, several Democrats in the state Senate and House want to give judges new tools for dealing with those whom a judge deems likely to be violent. With only one Republican signed on as a co-sponsor, the proposals introduced last week face long odds in a divided Legislature.
But the House and Senate companion bills are worth hearing in public sessions to air out any civil rights concerns that can legitimately be brought against this relatively new idea of what are called “extreme risk protective orders.” The goal is to find new, reasonable ways of keeping guns out of violent hands, while respecting the right to own and bear arms.
Gun rights backers rightfully may be skeptical. They were worried — even before Initiative 594 passed in November with more than 59 percent of the vote — that gun-control advocates were coming for their guns.
But I-594 did not take guns. It only mandated that all buyers of firearms be subject to criminal background checks. The background- checks law also continues the decades-old practice of keeping a record of handgun sales at the state Department of Licensing. The new law applies whether purchases are made at gun shows or online, in effect closing a loophole that could be exploited by criminals or those with disqualifying mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, the shooters in several high-profile Northwest killings have obtained firearms legally and would not have been stopped by background checks alone. This is because they had not been committed to a mental hospital for a long enough time.
Senate Bill 5727, sponsored by Sen. David Frockt of Seattle, has 16 co-sponsors including Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County and one Republican, Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way. House Bill 1857, which is identical, is sponsored by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and 10 other Democrats.
In a nutshell, the measures let a judge decide if a person’s guns should be taken away for a year — if a relative or law enforcement officer concerned about behavior asked for a hearing.
What could tip such a ruling is reckless use or brandishing of firearms, a history of using or attempting to use physical force against another person, past history of violating anti-harassment or no-contact orders, or evidence of drug abuse, including alcohol. There also is language about recent gun purchases that might serve as a tripwire to galvanize opponents’ ire.
Connecticut and Indiana have similar laws, and California put a similar measure on the books after a gunman killed six people in May near the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The National Rifle Association opposed the California law and can be expected to do the same here.
Jinkins plans to bring the measure for a hearing soon. We look forward to a full airing of the issue and hope that extremists in the gun-rights community — some of whom brandished firearms in Senate galleries recently, which angered and embarrassed more civil and civic minded gun-rights activists — can cool their emotions beforehand.
A careful examination of the proposal is needed to see whether there is a standard for judicial review that discourages abuses, that respects Washington’s strong constitutional right to own firearms, and that also protects the public.