How to prevent gun violence at Washington's K-12 schools has been a divisive topic at the state Capitol, leading to long fights and little action on proposals for strict new firearm regulations and security improvements.
After yet another deadly shooting at a U.S. high school, this one Friday in Texas, a top Republican says lawmakers should come back to Olympia and try again to find common ground.
On Friday, Centralia state Sen. John Braun urged Gov. Jay Inslee to order a special session before the start of the 2018-19 school year so the Legislature can at least consider bills aimed at preventing mass shootings. He said lawmakers should debate upgrades to the state's troubled mental health system and new age limitations for gun buyers.
Braun also said a state task force working this summer on strategies to curb school shootings should give its recommendations by August instead of this winter, so lawmakers can act on them before school begins. Braun is the top budget negotiator for his party in the Senate.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
"No law or legislative action will alone change human hearts and altogether stop violence," he said in a written statement Friday. "But the Legislature can take steps to reduce the risk of deadly school violence, which often stems from mental illness."
Braun's proposal was met coolly by Inslee's office, which has been frustrated at the lack of support for a bill to raise the minimum age to buy semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21 and other tough gun restrictions. Democrats control the House and Senate by slim majorities, but the party was not able to gather enough votes to pass the legislation in 2018.
Lawmakers adjourned for the year in March after a 60-day session.
"The obstacle to reducing gun violence has not been too few days in session," said Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, in an email to The News Tribune and The Olympian on Friday. "As Senator Braun says, there's a legislative workgroup talking about this and we look forward to reading their report."
State Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat heavily involved in negotiating gun legislation and school safety bills, was more open to the idea of a special session — particularly if Republicans move toward his side on new firearm restrictions.
"If they said 'show up and be there to work on this,' I would be there in a second,” he said in a phone interview Friday.
Near the end of session, Frockt worked behind the scenes on a large proposal aimed at preventing school shootings. Among its many provisions were policies to hike the minimum age to buy semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21, start a new grant program to add school resource officers and mental health counselors and develop emergency response systems to help law enforcement quickly respond to shootings.
Frockt said he took lots of input from Republicans, but found only one who would vote for the measure in the Senate. Two Democrats also defected, Frockt said, tanking the bill's chances. Democrats control the chamber 25-24. Some Republicans have voiced concerns that raising the minimum age for buying certain guns unnecessarily restricts law-abiding gun owners.
Sen. Phil Fortunato, an Auburn Republican and a lead on gun policy for the Senate GOP, has said if people are capable of voting at age 18, they should be capable of owning firearms.
Besides raising the age to buy semi-automatic weapons, Frockt said lawmakers should pass a bill that would make gun owners criminally liable if their gun is not stored properly and a minor takes it and fires it.
The 17-year-old who killed 10 at Santa Fe High School this week obtained a shotgun and a handgun from his father, who legally owned them, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Lawmakers have debated the safe firearm storage measure for years.
Last month, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility launched a signature drive to put an initiative on the November ballot that would implement the storage law, the new minimum age limitations for gun buyers and other new regulations on firearms. The group needs about 260,000 petition signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot.
Lawmakers did ban bump stocks in the 2018 legislative session. Bump stocks can be used to make a semi-automatic weapon fire more rapidly and mimic an automatic gun.
They also passed a bill that allows people to voluntarily give up their right to buy or keep guns if they're suicidal or are under mental distress. Another new law approved in 2018 prevents people with domestic violence harassment convictions from buying a firearm.
Braun, in his statement, made a new call for lawmakers to send a $500 million proposal to voters that would pay for construction of a variety of mental health facilities such as crisis centers and transitional housing. Some Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol have called for anonymous tip lines for students to report concerns.
Research shows mass shooters can be linked to mental illness, but health officials say people with psychiatric disorders still make up a small amount of perpetrators of gun violence. The American Journal of Public Healthy published a study that says fewer than 5 percent of 120,000 gun deaths between 2001 and 2010 in the U.S. were caused by people with a diagnosed mental illness.
Research on the effectiveness of gun restrictions has been split at times. A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Rand Corporation found at least some evidence that policies such as strong background checks, child-access prevention laws and prohibitions on firearm ownership by people with mental illness may decrease suicide, violent crime and accidental shootings.
The study found inconclusive research on whether those policies help prevent mass shootings, however.
If lawmakers don't convene a special session, they're scheduled to come back to the Capitol for the 2019 session in January. Braun said legislators should work to move past their differences and boost safety in schools.
"Violence in American schools frequently results in Republicans and Democrats arguing instead of working together to solve the problem," he said in his statement. "Fortunately in Washington state, there are areas where we can find agreement and make meaningful improvements to better protect our students and educators."