Murphy’s Lala speaks to a crowd at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration telling them to “pay them no mind” in response to the Pride protestors on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Murphy’s Lala speaks to a crowd at Arlington’s first-ever Pride celebration telling them to “pay them no mind” in response to the Pride protestors on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

AG’s office presses Arlington for weapons-free zone at Pride event

Event organizers say the precaution is warranted under the terms of a 2021 state law.

By Jerry Cornfield / Washington State Standard

State attorneys want the city of Arlington to bar open carry of firearms at the town’s Pride celebration Saturday but city leaders wouldn’t say Thursday if they will.

The situation marks a test for a two-year-old state law that was intended to prevent threats and violence at public gatherings.

Event sponsors first requested the prohibition on guns in May, citing the 2021 law, which allows local governments to impose such a restriction within 250 feet of a permitted event in a public park.

They expressed concern those attending could face harassment and intimidation from militant activists and community members who’ve vociferously opposed the day’s activities planned in the city’s Legion Memorial Park.

City Administrator Paul Ellis turned down the organizers, Arlington WA Pride, telling them the precise language of the law limited its application to “a demonstration, march, rally, vigil, sit-in, protest, picketing, or similar public assembly.”

“You have the right to minimize the risk of backlash and problems that might occur by regulating the content of your entertainment,” he told them, according to The Daily Herald.

This week, the Attorney General’s office got involved. It is the first time it’s pushed a city to abide by the state law’s provisions.

A department spokeswoman said they heard about the tension around the event from a combination of media reports, organizers, concerned residents and legislators.

Assistant Attorney General Chalia Stallings-Ala’ilima of the office’s Civil Rights Division wrote city leaders on July 14, seeking a meeting to understand the city’s rationale.

That meeting took place Wednesday. Ellis declined Thursday to say if the city’s position changed.

“At this time, we do not have any comments regarding the operations plan for this event,” he wrote in an email, copying Mayor Barbara Tolbert, who did not return phone calls.

The 2021 law prohibits open carrying of guns and other weapons either by people or in vehicles, while attending a permitted demonstration at a public place or while being within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration. It passed with Democratic support on a party-line vote.

A “permitted demonstration” is defined in the law as a gathering of 15 or more people in a public place for a single event for which a government permit has been obtained.

Caera Gramore, Arlington WA Pride’s interim president, told the City Council on July 3 that “every Pride event is a protest. That’s the point. We’re protesting cisheterosexism and the multiple harms it causes on our community.”

Stallings-Ala’ilima points out in her letter that the city-issued permit used a code for “Political or Religious Events,” which encompasses events “for the communication or expression of ideas.”

“As such, it would be helpful for me to understand the City’s rationale in determining the event is not covered by the open-carry restriction,” she wrote.

She’s not alone in wondering why.

“This law was intended for events where people may be threatened or intimidated,” said Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, who helped steer the legislation’s passage. “It feels like (the city administrator) is not interpreting it to protect people.”

At the time the law passed, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the bill’s prime sponsor, said it would give local governments “the tools to step in if they think it is warranted.”

“And it will encourage those who are planning a demonstration to think ahead and get a permit so they can have the protection of law,” she said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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