I-1639: A big nudge to safety for gun culture

A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Nov. 7 in Lynnwood, Wash.
A Ruger AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, center, sits on display with other rifles on a wall in a gun shop Nov. 7 in Lynnwood, Wash. AP file

Washington voters have acted twice in recent years to close gaps in the state laws governing gun purchasing and ownership.

This year, Initiative 1639 asks us to consider a third big step that deals with safe firearm storage, firearm training and 21-year age limits to buy a semi-automatic rifle.

The measure is stirring a worthy debate about how our state can encourage a more responsible gun culture that holds careless and criminal elements more accountable.

One previous voter-approved initiative required background checks for all gun transactions — including gun shows and online sales.

Another initiative gave tools to police and loved ones who can go to court and force certain mentally ill or demonstrably volatile relatives to forfeit their firearms at least temporarily.

These measures were good steps, and lawsuits have yet to overturn the restrictions based on rights in the Constitution.

Still, mass shootings at schools and other public venues are driving continuing public concerns about the extent of access individuals have to firearms and to popular semi-automatic rifles, which require separate trigger pulls to fire but reload using the energy of each expended cartridge.

Gun groups are universally opposed to I-1639, led by the National Rifle Association and smaller organizations. Many of critics’ objections are familiar complaints that the rules inconvenience a lawful gun owner’s capacity to own and wield firearms, which infringes on a right to bear arms.

Initiative 1639 establishes criminal sanctions for a gun owner failing to secure firearms that end up being used to kill, injure or threaten others.

And I-1639 requires background checks of the same vigor — including mental health registry checks — for purchasers of semi-automatic rifles that are already in place for buyers of pistols. This includes a 10-day waiting period.

If I-1639 passes and is not overturned in court, it also raises the age for semi-automatic gun purchases to 21, up from 18. This provides a degree of separation between those still of school age and those able to own these firearms.

Phil Shave, a board member of the Washington Arms Collectors, notes the initiative – like almost all measures written for the ballot – contains language that is not clear enough to head off problems — or affecting people who prefer semi-automatic firearms for self-protection.

The initiative uses broad language, lumping military-style assault rifles used in high-profile shootings with all semi-automatics — and then it requires stiffer background checks for all of those buyers.

Shave notes that I-1639’s requirement to safely store weapons in safes or with trigger locks also fails to specifically exempt police in the line of duty. This is a concern, though we think prosecutors will use common sense and not bring charges against an officer who does not secure a weapon in the middle of an emergency.

Still, it is disappointing — and symptomatic of initiative writing — that drafters of I-1639 were arrogant and did not consult police groups to make sure that safe storage requirements do not unduly slow an officer in emergencies.

I-1639 does have exemptions — in the case of gun thefts during break-ins, the loss of firearms securely stowed in a gun safe or a gun equipped trigger locks.

I-1639 is largely funded by money from in-state billionaires like the late Paul Allen ($1.2 million), wealthy families like Steve and Connie Balmer ($1 million), and venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer ($613,000). The NRA is a big donor on the other side with $200,000.

Overall, it’s important in this debate to recognize law abiding gun owners, whom we believe are the vast majority of gun owners. They deserve credit for their efforts to be safety conscious, and many voluntarily buy gun safes for home storage or trigger locks.

Still we all must understand that our common safety depends on everyone treating firearms as the highly dangerous tools they are. Not everyone does so, and that is one reason so many untraceable guns are in circulation for criminals.

We’ll have to see how far voters in Washington want to push the line in establishing a tougher norm for gun owners.

I-1639 backers made mistakes in formatting for their petitions early this year, which one Thurston County judge used to block the measure from the ballot. But the state Supreme Court said it was not a reason to throw out the initiative before voters weigh in, so the I-1639 is on the ballot.

So there is a chance this measure will be ruled invalid even if it passes.

Overall, the cultural norms I-1639 would foster are worth cultivating — whether by mandate or by the voluntary, educational means favored by gun groups.

Even if I-1639 fails, or it passes and is overturned in court, the public needs to keep up pressure socially and in the Legislature to encourage gun safety.