Rantz: Coronavirus gun ban controversy in Bellingham clarified

Mar 22, 2020, 3:47 PM | Updated: Mar 23, 2020, 2:37 pm

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The city of Bellingham was slated to debate a move to exploit fears over the coronavirus to infringe on our constitutional rights to gun ownership. It was viewed as a coronavirus gun ban. But one Councilmember says that wasn’t the intent. And while the gun language is still part of the law, it’s not actually what’s up for debate.

As communities deal with the outbreak of coronavirus, the Bellingham City Council is scheduled to vote on an emergency declaration that would ban the sale, distribution, or possession of guns throughout the entire city. If you violate their directive, you’d be committing a gross misdemeanor.

Coronavirus gun ban

The council will debate a resolution Monday that would amend the Emergency Services Council to better respond to the coronavirus public health emergency.

The resolution addresses the coronavirus gun ban in three parts:

5. An order requiring the discontinuance of the sale, distribution, or giving away of firearms and/or ammunition for firearms in any or all parts of the city;

7. An order requiring the closure of any or all business establishments where firearms and/or ammunition for firearms are sold or otherwise dispensed; provided, that with respect to those business establishments which are not primarily devoted to the sale of firearms and/or ammunition and in which such firearms and/or ammunition may be removed or made secure from possible seizure by the public, the portions thereof utilized for sale of items other than firearms and ammunition may, in the discretion of the mayor, be allowed to remain open;

9. An order prohibiting the carrying or possession of firearms or any instrument which is capable of producing bodily harm and which is carried or possessed with the intent to use the same to cause such harm; provided, that any such order shall not apply to peace officers or military personnel engaged in the performance of their official duties;

It’s unclear where all the council members stand on these issues and some of the language is sloppy and unclear. There’s also a pre-emption law in Washington state that should render this resolution illegal.

One Councilmember, Michael Lilliquist, tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that the language in the item is from the 70s. It’s still in the bill, and he says he’s exploring ways to take it out, but says they do not intend to curb gun rights. Indeed, he says he and the Mayor wouldn’t support that move.

No self-defense during a crisis?

A very clear principle inherent in the right to bear arms is to protect oneself. Self protection is something you might want to do during a crisis. People are panicked. And a coronavirus shelter-in-order declaration seems imminent. That is why this controversy took off.

You should have the right to protect yourself if people act out in ways that put you or your family in harm’s way. And a business that serves the purpose of allowing citizens to exert their constitutional rights, should be deemed an essential business.

Right now, under the governor’s declaration, pot shops remain open. But when it comes to guns shops we’d close them down?

I’ve rejected concern over the constitutionality of shelter-in-place directives. It’s a power the governor clearly has and he’d be right, at this point, to use it. I’m grateful to learn the language is old — but it’s still on the books and should be removed. That would be a good faith way to state there’s no threat of losing out on our gun rights.

 State Senators speak out on coronavirus gun ban

State Senator Doug Erickson (R-WA 42) represents Whatcom County and Bellingham falls under his leadership. In a statement to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Erickson pans the sloppy language of the resolution and warns that people won’t quickly give up their civil liberties.

My reading of this language — 9. An order prohibiting the carrying or possession of firearms or any instrument which is capable of producing bodily harm and which is carried or possessed with the intent to use the same to cause such harm; provided, that any such order shall not apply to peace officers or military personnel engaged in the performance of their official duties– is that you are only banned from carrying if you are carrying with the intent to do harm. Self defense by definition is not the intent to do hare. So while the language is unclear, I do not believe the emergency order bans private carry.

I also do not think any city should try to prevent people from defending themselves. The language is also unclear with regards to transport of firearm, such as in your vehicle. If it gets bad enough to enact these suspensions of civil liberties, I can guarantee you that people will not give up their firearms.

In Aberdeen, State Representative Jim Walsh (R-WA 19) took to Facebook to react. While he’s far from Bellingham, he’s raised concerns over the constitutionality of some declarations during the public health crisis.

“I have no idea whether that city council will act on the firearms ban,” Rep Walsh posted. “But I certainly hope cooler heads prevail when they consider these matters.”

Update from a councilmember.

Bellingham City Council Michael Lilliquist sent an email to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH — one he sent to a constituent — to say the Council didn’t see the ordinance before it was published.

Thanks for your letter. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding. No one is interested in curtailing firearms or alcohol sales, certainly not me.

The section of the existing municipal code concerning firearms sales and alcohol sales was written over 50 years ago. It’s been on the books since 1977. I guess they must have been thinking about mass riots or something. We have asked the city attorneys to look at that older part of the code. Based on my own research this weekend, this kind of emergency powers language is found in other city codes, and it is perhaps even more common that this kind of language does not appear in the municipal code. I’d like to review this issue fully, and right now my focus is on emergency relief efforts.

Not to be shifting blame, but the Bellingham city council did not see this ordinance before it was published. The ordinance was written at the direction of the mayor, and the writing of the ordinance is the work of city staff members, not political leaders. If you look at the draft ordinance, you see that the Bellingham mayor’s concern was with 1) improving our current emergency command structure and 2) adding an ability to create essential public facilities (e.g., temporary hospital) in an emergency. In that, I fully support the mayor’s efforts. That is what the proposed ordinance is about: emergency command structure and essential public facilities. My guess is that staff focused on that urgent project, and did not pay attention to older parts of the same law.

The proposed ordinance that we will vote on does not add or change any part of the law concerning gun sales or alcohol sales. Staff included the whole section of the code, i.e., the proposed new parts alongside the 50-year-old parts, to show full context for the changes. I don’t think staff thought about it before publication. It was not the focus of people’s attention. It’s not was the city council is being asked to consider.

Our attention and efforts are focused on providing emergency relief that our community has asked for — e.g., deferred tax payments, no penalties for late payments of water bills, emergency housing, support for local small businesses, etc. We are keeping essential government services such as police and fire protection running, while adjusting in ways to keep our emergency responders safe. We are coordinating with service providers, like the hospital and local food bank, to keep things moving while keeping people at safe distances from each other. Our minds are on these and many other tasks.

The mayor has been clear that he does NOT support restrictions on guns sales or alcohol as an emergency action, and I agree with him.

(UPDATE: I updated the story based on the information from Councilmember Lilliquist)

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