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Aiming to address ‘armed intimidation,’ Washington lawmakers consider a gun ban at school board meetings and election facilities

Guns and other weapons would be banned from election-related locations and at school board meetings in Washington under a pair of proposals that received a public hearing in the Democratically-controlled state Legislature on Wednesday.

In addition, people would be prohibited from openly carrying firearms at local government meetings — such as meetings of city councils.

Violations would be gross misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of $5,000.

These proposals to address what proponents termed "armed intimidation" come amid heightened tensions — and even violent clashes — over election outcomes, the public health response to COVID-19 and how public schools teach the history of racism in the United States.

The bills also build upon a law passed last year that banned the open carry of weapons at the state Capitol and at permitted demonstrations statewide.

"When our ballots and elections workers are under threat, our democracy isn't safe," said Democratic state Rep. April Berg in testimony before the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee regarding her bill to ban weapons from ballot counting centers and other election-related facilities.

Berg recounted a 2020 election recount in Snohomish County where she said her husband witnessed "harsh language filled with vitriol" on the part of recount observers.

"What he described was bad, but it could have been much worse if firearms or other weapons were present," Berg said.

Washington law already prohibits firearms in a number of public settings, including schools, courthouses, jails, mental health facilities and in liquor and cannabis stores.

"This legislation is about extending the same protections we offer to students, teachers and our courtrooms to the beating heart of our democracy, the very place where our election workers count ballots," Berg said.

Elected officials from Olympia, Bellingham and Spokane offered support for the second measure which would extend the ban on openly carried weapons to government buildings — like city halls — where public meetings take place, and to all locations where local government hearings or meetings occur. That same measure would also ban all weapons at school board meetings.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Shelby, who was first elected in 2015, said she has witnessed a "dramatic shift" in how the public interacts with elected officials at public meetings.

Shelby, who testified in favor of both gun bills, said she's had to leave council chambers and retreat to a "safe room" on four occasions.

"We cannot run the risk of leaving any part of our democratic process, from school board meetings to ballot counting, vulnerable to gun violence," Shelby told the committee. "It only takes one lone wolf incited by antigovernment hysteria to end a life."

Shelby was among several proponents who invoked either the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol or the security breach that same day by pro-Trump supporters at the governor's residence in Olympia.

Opponents of the proposed new restrictions pushed back forcefully in their own testimony. A common theme was that the bills would abrogate their state and federal constitutional gun rights and unfairly penalize lawful gun owners, without improving public safety.

Micah Zeitz-Chua, in opposing the ban on guns in election-related facilities, noted that Washington already has a law that makes it a gross misdemeanor to disrupt activities taking place in a voting center.

"Prohibiting the lawful and licensed carry of concealed firearms achieves no genuine interest except to create a condition where someone can't vote," Zeitz-Chua said.

Another opponent, Todd Gowin, who identified himself as a business owner from Kitsap County, challenged the idea that the bills would make the public and elected officials safer.

"I will not feel secure and safe in any situation that we do not have the right to carry a gun," Gowin said.

He added: "We cannot take away a constitutional Second Amendment right to serve the few who feel intimidated by [that] constitutional right."

But Drayton Jackson, representing the Central Kitsap School Board, countered that the proposed state laws need to be considered in the context of Black disenfranchisement in the United States.

"When we talk about violence and we talk about intimidation, we're not talking about gun rights," Jackson said. "We're talking about what many Black people and people of color in this country have went through. We're talking about making sure that I don't show up."

In a text message message Wednesday, state Rep. Drew Hansen, the chair of the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, said he expects to schedule the weapons bills for a committee vote next Friday, along with a third bill that addresses untraceable guns, also known as "ghost guns." He said he didn't know if the bills will undergo significant changes before those votes, but said the committee is "looking closely" at all three.

Separately, Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer, who last year sponsored the ban on open carry at the state Capitol and at permitted demonstrations, has a related proposal this year to allow local governments to enact their own restrictions on openly carried weapons at public meetings and demonstrations.

Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network