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Government and Politics
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."

Washington Senate votes to ban open carry of firearms at Capitol and at demonstrations

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Austin Jenkins
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Northwest News Network
The open carry of firearms and other weapons would be banned at the Washington Capitol and at permitted demonstrations under a bill that has passed the state Senate.

Following a year of frequent armed protests, some of which turned violent, the Washington Senate voted Thursday to ban the open carry of firearms at the state Capitol and within 250 feet of permitted demonstrations anywhere in the state.

The mostly party line vote was 28 to 20.

“Guns and polarized politics is a bad combination and it poses serious risks to public health and safety,” said Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer, the prime sponsor of the bill.

In her speech, Kuderer invoked several recent incidents, including the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January and the shooting deaths of two people at protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“Honestly, I don’t see any practical purpose for carrying a deadly weapon at public demonstrations or here at the Capitol,” Kuderer said. “The only purpose to do it is to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.”

But opponents argued that the bill is an infringement on Second Amendment rights. They also noted it’s already illegal to brandish a firearm with an intent to intimidate. 

“I find this bill, and I think my constituents find this bill, rather intimidating,” said Republican state Sen. Keith Wagoner. “It restricts their rights directly, a right to open carry, and secondarily a right of freedom of expression.”

Republican state Sen. Phil Fortunato added: “It turns legal gun owners, once again, into criminals.”

Under the bill, which was amended on the floor of the Senate, it would be unlawful for someone to openly carry a firearm or other weapon on themselves or in a vehicle at any permitted demonstration. A violation would be a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

If a march or rally wasn’t issued a permit in advance, local officials could declare the event to be permitted once 15 or more people had assembled in a public place.

An exception to the open carry ban would exist for people who are on private property they own or lease. For instance, if a business owner wanted to stand guard with a rifle while a demonstration passed by, that would be allowed.

The measure would also prohibit the open carry of weapons on Washington’s Capitol campus, in any state legislative office or at a legislative meeting or hearing.

Already, legislative rules bar openly carried guns from the public galleries in the House and Senate. The Capitol is a frequent site of pro-Second Amendment rallies and other events that draw large crowds of people openly carrying firearms, including tactical rifles.

Historically, those have been peaceful and low-key events.

However, last February, a group of approximately 250 people, many of them openly carrying pistols and rifles, staged an unpermitted “March for our Rights” at the Capitol that spilled into the rotunda.

At one point, a splinter group that included armed protesters gathered outside the locked door to the House chamber and demanded to speak to House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox. The group was apparently upset about Wilcox’s treatment of then-state Rep. Matt Shea who had been suspended from the House Republican caucus, according to reporting by The Seattle Times

Following that event, Democratic state Rep. Tana Senn introduced a bill to ban open carry at the Capitol. But the measure didn’t advance.

Then, in December, there were two shootings at and near the Capitol that occurred after pro-Trump and anti-fascist demonstrators clashed. Some of the participants in those demonstrations were openly carrying firearms. 

In January, on the same day the U.S. Capitol was attacked, a group of pro-Trump supporters, some of whom were armed, breached the gate at the governor’s residence and made their way to his front porch.

Armed groups also showed up last year at protests for racial justice in towns like Snohomish and Sequim. And during last summer’s protests in Seattle, demonstrators and counter protesters near the CHOP protest zone were spotted openly carrying tactical rifles.

The ban on open carry at demonstrations and at the Capitol is a top priority this year of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a gun control group. 

The bill next goes to the House.

Four states and the District of Columbia ban the open carry of guns at demonstrations, according to reporting by the Associated Press. More than a dozen states ban the practice at state Capitols and government buildings.