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With more power, Washington Democrats eye gun laws

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Manka Dhingra’s win in November’s special election will give Democrats control of both the state House and Senate for the first time since 2012 during the next legislative session.

RELATED: Gun control issue prominent in King County politics 

With that shift in power in Olympia, Democrats are hoping to push through more progressive legislation, including aggressive new gun laws. That includes undoing a decades-old state law that keeps cities and counties from enacting their own gun laws.

Washington state’s preemption law puts the authority for all gun regulations squarely in the hands of the Legislature, making it illegal for cities, counties, or other municipalities to enact their own.

But State Representative Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) hopes to change that with a bill she’s sponsoring in the upcoming legislative session.

“It’s the Restoration of Local Authority, and it returns control to our local cities and towns and counties from taking their own action to prevent gun violence by overturning the statewide preemption law that was enacted 30 years ago. It will allow cities and towns to limit firearm access in the ways that they think will best protect their communities in public places like parks and libraries where we know kids play and learn.”

The state preemption law has been in effect since 1983. It has been a model for more than 40 states over the past two decades.

But Macri says it’s time for a change.

“We know that cities and towns have been prohibited from making the best choices for their own communities, and this is an extension I think of other protections that we have allowed at the state level including local options to prohibit guns on schools. Well, depending on the community, there might be other public locations — particularly where children are — that is in the best interest of those cities and towns to limit firearms access; in parks, in libraries for example. This will allow our local government leaders to make the choices that are best for the people that live in their communities.”

This should sound familiar. In 2008, after a shooting at the Folklife Festival, then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels sneaked in a code change on his way out of office, banning guns from parks and other city property. Gun rights groups sued, and the rule was shot down by a King County judge because of the state preemption law. Seattle lost on appeal and then asked for a review by the state Supreme Court. The court declined to review the case because the Seattle gun ban was against state law.

There have also been previous unsuccessful efforts in the Legislature to undo the state preemption law, most recently in 2015. But with Republicans controlling the Senate, the bills never got hearings.

Macri believes this time it will be different now that Democrats have control of the Senate.

“What I do expect with Democrats in control of committee chair positions in the Senate, including Senator Jaime Pederson chairing the Law and Justice Committee in the Senate, is that there will be more of an opportunity for us to have full hearings and debate on these issues around gun violence protection.”

But gun rights advocate Dave Workman with says the state preemption law is there for a reason.

“Nobody wants to be entrapped by a local law that may be more aggressive than what they find anywhere else in the state,” Workman said. “It’s like driving into a speed trap in a small town. Nobody wants to do that. The idea that they would dismantle the state preemption law just so Seattle could enact its own gun laws, that’s counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

But Macri points out this is not the first time Seattle has separated itself from the state.

“Not every city in Washington state has a ban on smoking cigarettes in public parks, but we do have that in Seattle,” Marci said. “That might cause confusion, but it seems appropriate in an urban environment, whereas some other communities, that may not be a priority for them. I think folks can figure it out, and it’s not unprecedented that we have different local ordinances across our cities and towns.”

Workman says Democrats only have a slim majority in Olympia. He says they may want to think twice before pushing such aggressive gun control legislation.

“I’m not too sure how this is going to be accepted in Olympia. It’s been the history of gun control proponents that they always try to overreach in this state and it backfires on them. There are a lot of rural Democrats — I know a few of them — that are not going to warm to this idea at all. It’s a situation I think where the rural Democrats, especially with the 2018 elections coming up, they stand to lose quite a bit if they go against the grain of their constituents.”

Macri’s Restoration of Local Authority is just one of several gun control measures expected to come up in the 60 days session that starts Jan. 8. Other measures include a bill that would strengthen rules for buying firearms such as the AR-15, and requiring an annual permit to own rifles.

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