Students, teachers and parents from across Washington came to the Capitol Campus Tuesday to show support for a bill that would restrict access to semi-automatic rifles.
The rally — just a few days before the Legislature will adjourn — marked the latest outcry in Washington over a string of school shootings in recent years that have claimed the lives of hundreds of people across the country. The most recent of those shootings occurred last month when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
Cruz, who is in jail awaiting trial, committed the murders using a semi-automatic rifle he legally purchased, according to police.
State Sen. David Frockt, a Democrat from Seattle, wants to change the law in Washington to prevent people under the age of 21 from purchasing these types of weapons.
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Frockt introduced a bill in the 2018 legislative session that would require enhanced background checks and raise the minimum age to 21 for the purchase of semi-automatic guns.
Senate bill 6620 also includes provisions to speed-up how schools report emergencies like a shooting to law enforcement. It is unclear whether the bill, which was introduced after a legislative cutoff, will be heard for a vote in the Senate.
Frockt said at Tuesday’s rally that he hopes the bill will mark a departure from a trend of no response by elected officials following other mass shootings.
“Something happens and we throw up our hands and forget about it until the next time it happens,” Frockt said to the protesters. “Don’t think the way we are living today is normal because it is not.”
Opponents of the measure have questioned how much of a difference raising the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic gun would have on gun violence.
Some point to data analysis from Everytown For Gun Safety, an advocacy group calling for an end to gun violence, that showed that of the 156 mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, two were committed by people younger than 21 with guns that can be classified as assault weapons.
The News Tribune and The Olympian earlier reported some Republican lawmakers have advocated for greater enforcement of existing laws, blocking people with a history of mental illness or violence from buying guns rather than penalizing others who wish to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
“Is the problem a 19-year-old buying a gun?” state Sen. Phil Fortunato, a Republican from Auburn, told the newspapers last month. “No, the problem is a mentally unstable 19-year-old buying a gun.”
Those gathered in the Legislative Building Tuesday — some of whom have been personally affected by gun violence — said they believe legislation like SB 6620 is a step in the right direction in the campaign to reduce gun violence.
Renee Hopkins, the CEO of Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the non-profit behind the protest, said she supports increased gun regulation in memory of her brother who died in a 1996 shooting.
“Adults have failed children in this arena for decades,” Hopkins said. “It’s really time for them to start doing their work, especially our elected officials.”
Angela Shellenberg said she was 16 when her father was killed in gun violence. The former teacher and mother of two 13-year-old boys questioned whether her father might still be alive had criminal background checks been mandatory at the time of his death.
Shellenberg also questioned the ease with which people in Washington can buy certain guns, but not medicine or fireworks.
“If I have to show my ID to buy Sudafed, why don’t I have to do that for guns? It shouldn’t be that easy to buy a gun,” Shellenberg said.
Frockt’s bill is not the only piece of gun regulation working its way through the Legislature.
A ban on bump stocks — devices that allow semi-automatic guns to fire more quickly — recently passed both chambers of the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday.
The debate over such gun modifications was launched by a mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall when a gunman used them to kill 58 people at an outdoor concert.
“This measure is going to save lives,” Inslee said at the bill signing.
But several students that spoke before Tuesday’s crowd said more needs to be done to end the gun violence that has become commonplace.
Aurora Straus-Reeves, a senior from Olympia High School, gave an emotional speech in which she spoke about the first time she became aware of the issue of gun violence.
Straus-Reeves said she attended an assembly on what to do in the event of shooting two years ago and was “shocked and horrified” to learn that this sort of thing could happen in her school, her own community.
Since then, Straus-Reeves said she has a hard time not thinking about a gunman entering her school whenever she enters a classroom. She pointed to legislation like Frockt’s as something that would help ease her concerns.
“It would mean feeling more secure and more comfortable in all public places knowing that there isn’t some person who could whip out a gun and shoot many, many people,” Straus-Reeves said.