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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Lieutenant Governor To Ban Guns In Washington State Senate Galleries

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Jason McMillan carrying a military-style pistol in the Washington House gallery in 2015. Beginning in January of 2018, all guns will be banned from the Senate gallery.

This story has been updated

All firearms will be banned from the Washington state Senate public viewing galleries when the 2018 legislative session begins on January 8.

Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a Democrat who serves as the president of the Senate, issued that order Monday, extending a previous order banning openly-carried guns in the Senate galleries.

“I don’t want us to be implementing this type of order the day after some type of tragedy,” Habib said in a phone interview with Northwest News Network and the Associated Press. “I want us to be doing it preemptively and in a way that’s respectful.”

In a letter Monday to the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms, Habib said guns in the gallery violate “the order and decorum required for the operation of the Senate.”

Habib said the new rule will apply to licensed, concealed carry pistol holders, but initially enforcement will focus on screening visitors for high-capacity rifles or “assault weapons.” To that end, Habib is instructing Senate security staff to require visitors to leave bags and heavy coats at the gallery doors.

Ultimately, Habib said, the Senate might install metal detectors outside the doors to the galleries.

The rule will only apply to the Senate galleries. House leaders said Monday there is no discussion currently of changing the gun policy for the House galleries. Guns are allowed in other locations inside the Washington Capitol building. 

Credit Washington Legislature
Washington Legislature
File photo. The Washington Senate has two viewing galleries where the public sits perched above the Senate floor.

Brad Mickelson, who is from Iowa and was visiting the Washington Capitol on Monday afternoon, said he thought the new Senate rule makes sense.

"I feel it's a right to carry a gun, you can do that, I feel that's OK, but I don't know if it's necessary to bring it in here," Mickelson said.

But gun rights advocates immediately denounced the ban. “This looks like an attempt maybe to keep some people out of the Senate galleries who’ve never caused a problem before,” said Dave Workman with the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Bellevue.

Reaction from top Senate leaders was mixed. Democrat Sharon Nelson praised the move as necessary in the absence of what she calls "reforms to our nation's gun laws." Republican Mark Schoesler urged Habib to seek legal advice to "ensure that the order also respects the public's constitutional rights."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Washington is among 23 states that allow guns in their capitol buildings. Ten of those states, including Washington, are open carry states where citizens are allowed to openly carry a firearm as long as it’s not concealed. The other 13 states allow permitted concealed pistol holders to enter capitol buildings armed. Louisiana, Kentucky and Missouri restrict guns in the capitol with an exemption for legislators.

“The message to members of the public is that—as in the case in countless government buildings around the country, including most statehouses, courthouses all over the place—this is a particular setting where it’s not deemed safe to have weapons,” Habib said. “This is in no way a statement about those individuals’ lawful ability to bear arms.”

Workman, the gun rights advocate, took issue with that statement calling it “disingenuous at best because this absolutely is a statement about those individuals’ lawful ability to bear arms.”

Washington has more than 590,000 concealed carry permit holders, according to the Department of Licensing.

In 2015, then-Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat, banned non-concealed guns from the Senate galleries. The move followed an incident where several gun rights advocates brought their firearms into the Washington House gallery. The State Patrol threatened one man with arrest because he had his finger near the trigger of his gun. That ban was later extended to the House galleries and House and Senate committee meeting rooms.

While campaigning for lieutenant governor in 2016, Habib talked about additional restrictions on guns in the Senate gallery. He said he decided to act in advance of the 2018 legislative session in part because of the current political climate.

“It’s become quite difficult for the Senate to proceed in an orderly fashion when members and staff have, in my view, a justified level of anxiety about their personal safety,” Habib said, citing at March 2017 attack at the British Parliament and the June shooting at a congressional baseball practice.

Visitors to the Washington state Capitol currently do not go through a screening to enter the building. In the fall of 2004, metal detectors were installed at the entry doors to the Capitol but they were taken out less than a year later because of the cost and criticism that it made the building less accessible.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."