SEDRO-WOOLLEY — About 60 people filed into Sedro-Woolley City Hall recently, all with questions about a gun law that went into effect July 1.
Sedro-Woolley police officer Chris Rogers used a PowerPoint presentation to answer questions about gun safety, storage and how to legally transfer or sell firearms.
“A lot of this stuff is logic and common sense,” Police Chief Lin Tucker said.
Initiative 1639 has brought about a number of changes to the state’s gun laws, particularly for those wishing to purchase semiautomatic assault rifles. It was approved in November by nearly 60% of voters.
While some of the new law’s provisions — such as increasing the minimum age to purchase semiautomatic assault rifles to 21 — went into effect at the beginning of the year, others, such as the requirement for a gun safety class every five years, went into effect earlier this month.
The changes brought about by I-1639 have caused concerns among law enforcement — from whether the provisions are constitutional, to whether law enforcement should be responsible for providing the gun safety classes or should have to pay for the enhanced background checks.
In the wake of the law’s passage, at least 13 of the state’s 39 sheriffs and at least two police chiefs have said they won’t enforce the law, according to The Seattle Times.
In Skagit County, top law enforcement officials are unwilling to go so far.
“Until a court determines that Initiative 1639 or any portion of it is unconstitutional, the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office will abide by the initiative,” Skagit County Sheriff Don McDermott said.
That doesn’t, however, mean law enforcement officials in Skagit County don’t have concerns about the changes brought about by the initiative, Tucker said.
“Every chief and sheriff in the state of Washington, we all have questions,” he said. “There’s so many things about this law that leaves us scratching our heads.”
For Tucker, some of those concerns are related to the requirement for gun safety classes.
The state Office of the Attorney General says the new law requires those who wish to purchase semiautomatic assault rifles must undergo training that addresses basic firearms safety rules, firearms and children — including how to talk to children about gun safety — firearms and suicide prevention, secure gun storage to prevent unauthorized use, safe handling and transferring of firearms.
The law does not require the training be done in a certain way or be conducted by certain agencies or groups.
It only says that training be done by “federal, state, county or municipal law enforcement agency, a college or university, a nationally recognized organization that customarily offers firearms training, or a firearms training school with certified instructors.”
Because the law is unclear, the Sedro-Woolley Police Department decided to step in.
“We saw a need in our community to offer this,” Sgt. Paul Eaton said. “We knew no one else was going to do this.”
More than 80 people from Skagit County and beyond signed up within a few hours after the first class on July 9 was announced, Tucker said. The police department offered two other classes Friday, including one open only to Sedro-Woolley residents.
Continuing to offer such classes on a regular basis is not something the department will be able to do.
“Full compliance is going to be difficult,” Tucker said. “Initiative 1639 didn’t say ‘Here’s some extra money to pay for these people to do these extra things.’”
Anacortes Police Chief John Small said that like driver education courses, firearms safety courses shouldn’t be the responsibility of the police, whose job it is to enforce the law.
“I’m hoping the state steps up and helps fill that void,” Small said. “We don’t have the manpower is the bottom line.”
Although the Mount Vernon Police Department incorporates aspects of gun safety into some of its public education and block watch meetings, interim Police Chief Chris Cammock said he believes the state-required classes can be best handled by private entities.
“Developing a course would require staffing that we, right now, just don’t have the resources to do,” he said. “It’s a resource intensive law.”
The lack of funding is why Burlington Police Chief Mike Luvera also said his department cannot provide such classes.
Small, Luvera and Cammock said their departments also will do their best to enforce the new laws.
“I have a lot of personal opinions about a lot of laws, but being a professional means I enforce the law and not my opinion,” Luvera said. “Courts give opinions.”
The Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and the National Rifle Association are among the parties challenging the constitutionality of the initiative in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The complaint names Clark County Sheriff Charles Atkins and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, who have said they will enforce the initiative, as defendants.
“We are responsible for enforcing the law,” McDermott said. “My intent is to advance policies that respect the constitutional rights of our citizens that we serve, taking into consideration public safety and the rule of law. We will not take any enforcement that conflicts with the rights that are protected by either the Washington State Constitution or the United States Constitution.”
Another provision that went into effect this month is the requirement for local law enforcement to conduct enhanced checks on those wishing to purchase semiautomatic assault rifles.
“The background checks required by Initiative 1639 are not discretionary,” the state Office of the Attorney General states. “The law requires that law enforcement agencies perform these checks. It is their duty.”
Those enhanced background checks, which include searching for outstanding warrants through the State Patrol’s database and mental health checks with the state Health Care Authority, have long been required for pistol purchases and transfers.
Now it will be required for semiautomatic assault rifles.
“The process for background checks alone has caused significant concerns,” McDermott said. “We face an unfunded mandate regarding background checks for handguns and semiautomatic weapons. We are anticipating a significant increase in the work for our staff.”
Additionally, I-1639 allows for potential criminal charges in certain cases where a gun is not properly secured.
According to the state Office of the Attorney General: “A person who fails to securely store a firearm could be charged with a felony if a person who is legally ineligible to possess a firearm uses it to injure or kill themselves or someone else.”
A firearm owner may be charged with a gross misdemeanor if someone else uses the firearm in the commission of another crime or in a way that shows intent to cause harm, according to the state Office of the Attorney General.
A gun owner is not criminally responsible if the firearm is stolen through unlawful entry and if the theft is reported to law enforcement within five days.