As of July 1, Initiative 1639, which regulates the sale and storage of firearms in Washington State is in full effect.
During the 2018 midterm elections, 59% of Washington state voters, and 57% of Kitsap County voters voted in favor of I-1639.
1639 raised the minimum age of purchase of semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21, increased background checks and waiting periods, required that buyers take safety compliance courses and enacted new storage requirements for all gun owners.
When the law passed in Nov. 2018 multiple law enforcement officials across the state came out against the law, believing it to be unconstitutional, and stated that they would not enforce it in their jurisdictions.
Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson initially opposed the initiative even after attending various public forums and debates.
“I felt that the legislation was poorly written, with a great deal of ambiguity and unintended consequences,” Simpson said in a letter back in February.
“The expected outcome of this initiative is well-intentioned, however, there are numerous aspects of this initiative which are essentially impossible for law enforcement to appropriately respond to. It also places a greater burden on law-abiding citizens and law enforcement while creating no accountability for actual criminals,” Simpson said.
Simpson asked citizens and fellow officers to wait for the courts to decide the constitutionality of 1639 and maintain the background check process.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, backed by Governor Jay Inslee, responded to dissenting law enforcement officials by issuing a strongly worded letter to all law enforcement cautioning them against not enforcing 1639.
“I am deeply concerned that the failure of local law enforcement to perform Initiative 1639’s background check requirement will jeopardize public safety in our state by allowing the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles to dangerous individuals not lawfully allowed to own a gun,” Ferguson said.
“State law provides immunity to local law enforcement officers who run these (background) checks ‘in good faith.’ However, in the event a police chief or sheriff refuses to perform the background check required by Initiative 1639, they could be held liable if there is a sale or transfer of a firearm to a dangerous individual prohibited from possessing a firearm and that individual uses that firearm to do harm. In short, the taxpayers of your city or county assume the financial risk of your decision to impose your personal views over the law,” Ferguson cautioned.
Following the issuance of this letter, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation filed a lawsuit against Washington State and A.G. Ferguson. The lawsuit alleges that 1639 is unconstitutional and wrongly regulates interstate commerce.
The NRA refiled its lawsuit, removing A.G. Ferguson as the defendant and replacing him with the Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and Clark County Sheriffs Office, two law enforcement officials that chose to enforce the newly enacted laws.
Many gun owners and dealers in opposition to 1639 have voiced particular issue with the provisions of laws regarding background checks and safe storage, often arguing that the enhanced background checks violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and that the requirements for safe storage are impractical.
Enhanced background checks
When a background check is conducted by law enforcement, it searches for multiple things, such as outstanding warrants in the Washington State Patrol database — which also conducts the mental health checks required by the Washington State Health Care Authority, including pleas of not guilty by insanity.
Under I-1639, when a person signs the application to purchase a firearm, it constitutes a waiver of confidentiality, meaning mental health institutions and other health care facilities can release to an inquiring court or law enforcement agency, information relevant to the applicant’s eligibility to purchase a firearm. By signing the application, a person looking to purchase the firearm knowingly waives their rights under HIPAA.
Regarding safe storage requirements, 1639 does not require firearms to be stored in a specific way or in a specific place but notes that the owners could be held liable if a person, who should not have access to a firearm, gains access and uses it.
1639 stipulates that if the owner knows or reasonably should know that the firearm could be accessed by a prohibited person, such as a child, the owner could be charged with a crime is the firearm is used.
The owner could be charged with a felony if the firearm is used by a prohibited person and results in death or harm to others or themselves (suicide). They could also be charged with a misdemeanor if the firearm is discharged or used in a way to threaten or intimidate someone.
If the prohibited person gains access to the firearm without the owner knowing, such as in the case of theft, the owner must contact police within five days of them realizing it has been taken, to not face felony or misdemeanor charges. Other exceptions to this provision are made if the prohibited person is granted access by the owner to be used with the owner’s supervision, or in cases of self-defense.