A West Richland gun shop owner is taking a public stance against enforcing new age restrictions on semi-automatic rifles.
“We are working to the letter of the law,” said Matt Cieslar, the owner of Talos Tactical. “Everybody seems to be coming to me asking me questions with the premise that we’re edgy, and that’s not it at all.”
He said he is walking a legal tightrope between the supporters and opponents of changes brought about by Initiative 1639, and he can’t enforce the restriction without inviting a lawsuit.
The gun control and safety measure passed statewide with 59 percent of the vote. One of its changes to state law makes it illegal for gun store owners to sell “semi-automatic assault rifles” to anyone under 21.
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But it’s the only section of the law that went into effect Jan. 1.
The rest of the law — including changes to background checks and punishments to leaving guns unsecured — starts July 1.
This is the point where Cieslar sees a problem.
Tucked into one of those remaining 18 sections is a definition of “semi-automatic assault rifle.” While he knows what the law intends, he believes he can’t enforce the law without a definition, and there is no other definition in state law.
Cieslar is not quiet about his personal dislike of the law that he says restricts semi-automatic hunting rifles along with the guns that proponents intended to get.
He believes he can still sell anything to buyers ages 18 to 20 until the assault rifle definition takes effect on July 1 with the rest of the initiative.
“I don’t want to tell them that they can’t buy a .22-caliber rifle to go shoot squirrels,” he said. “If the law says I have to do it, then I’ll do it, but until then we’re going to obey the letter of the law.”
He’s not the only gun store owner to vocally challenge the new restriction. Lynnwood gun store owner Tiffany Teasdale told KOMO she didn’t see how she could follow the new restriction with the way it’s written.
No other Tri-Cities gun store has publicly spoken about whether they will follow the age restriction.
On the other side, Kristen Ellingboe, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility’s communication manager, said the gun store owners are trying to find a loophole, and aren’t really concerned about a lawsuit.
The alliance led efforts to get the initiative passed this fall, including fending off a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association.
The group said the measure is aimed at curbing the amount of deaths caused by assault weapons.
Alliance officials said mass shootings with those guns result in more people dead.
“It is the will of the people and the intent is clear,” she said. “I think claiming confusion is a bit disingenuous.”
It’s unclear whether who is right. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Initiative 1639 is constitutional, but his office is quiet on whether dealers need to start enforcing the new age restriction.
While it’s true that legal definition of semi-automatic assault rifle doesn’t go into effect until July 1, Tacoma attorney Vitaliy Kertchen said Cieslar’s argument is a bit of a stretch.
When a definition isn’t in place, the judges tend to turn to the dictionary for a meaning.
“In my opinion, the law is not overly vague,” he said.
Whether the new law is in effect is mostly moot. Two local police chiefs say they’re holding off on enforcing the the initiative.
West Richland’s police Chief Ben Majetich said the new law doesn’t go into effect until July and isn’t enforceable at this point. Richland’s Interim Chief Jeff Taylor said that the law is caught in a series of lawsuits and he’s waiting until they’re resolved.
Enforcing the new restrictions falls to local police, said Christine Anthony, a Department of Licensing spokesperson, including restrictions on gun shops.
In his Facebook post, Cieslar said he brought his concerns to two Washington police chiefs, and they agreed with him. He told the Herald the chiefs didn’t want to be named.
He also brought the issue to an attorney.
The difference in the dates is meant to allow time to set up for the rest of the new law, Ellingboe said. She said the age restriction is the simplest piece to implement.
“We just wanted to make sure that there is enough time that the law is implemented correctly, and that all Washington voters are educated before it goes into effect,” she said.
It also gives legislators a chance to look at the measure when they return to Olympia on Jan. 14.