In this Jan. 6, 2021 at the Capitol in Olympia, two men stand armed with guns at a protest supporting President Donald Trump and against the counting of electoral votes in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

On Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, two men stand armed with guns at a protest supporting President Donald Trump and against the counting of electoral votes in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Ban of guns at government meetings, ballot counting advances

The prohibition would cover open- and concealed-carry of firearms. State House Democrats overrode Republican objections.

OLYMPIA — Washington moved a step closer Monday to barring firearms where school boards and city councils meet, and where ballots are counted.

The state House approved legislation barring “open carry” at buildings where elected city and county leaders hold their meetings, and both open and concealed carry where school boards meet and vote tallying occurs.

Majority Democrats pushed through House Bill 1630 on a 57-41 party-line vote, contending the restrictions will keep those places free of intimidation from armed individuals. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to count ballots with armed people around you. It would be intimidating,” said Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, a bill co-sponsor. “We should not allow guns where we are performing democracy. Period. Full stop.”

In a roughly three-hour debate, Republicans argued the legislation is unconstitutional because it impairs gun owners’ Second Amendment rights.

And they contended that disallowing concealed weapons to be carried into school board sessions and voting centers will make those sites less safe, not more.

“This is a terrible, terrible bill. This is a bill in search of a problem, a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon and participated in rallies while openly carrying a firearm.

Courtrooms, jails, schools and airports have long been off-limits. A few months ago a new law added the campus of the state Capitol to the list. It also banned open-carry at or near public rallies and demonstrations.

This bill aims to build on that momentum.

Meanwhile, legislation in the state Senate takes a different approach.

It would allow cities, towns, counties and other municipalities to craft their own open-carry restrictions, beyond statewide rules. Senate Bill 5568 would modify current law, which preempts local governments from doing so. It is in the Senate Rules Committee.

Both are in response to what Democrats say has been a dangerous uptick in tense confrontations at public meetings fueled by national politics, pandemic policies and instruction of social theories.

Under HB 1630, it would be illegal to openly carry a weapon into a building if the person knows it is where the local governing body is meeting. It could be a regular council meeting or a special public hearing.

And it bans open and concealed carry of firearms where official meetings of a school district board of directors are occurring, and where ballots are getting counted. However, concealed carry is not prohibited if a person is walking into an elections office to drop off a ballot or pick up a voter registration card.

Notice of the restrictions would have to be posted at any covered location. A violation would be a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to a year in jail.

During Monday’s debate, Republicans offered amendments to allow concealed weapons at school board meetings and election offices. Concealed carry, they argued, is for people’s protection, and not permitting would make the public less safe.

Also, they worried people carrying a gun in a purse or ankle holster could unwittingly break the law by walking into a building where the school board is meeting or election staff is working.

“It’s easy. I have walked into a school with my weapon on me, inadvertently,” Sutherland said, recalling a time he went on a campus one of his daughters attended. “It hit me later that I just violated the law inadvertently.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said a woman who holds a concealed-carry permit for self-defense would face “a brutal choice” between exercising her constitutional right to protect herself and her constitutional right to participate in the democratic process.

Democrats responded infrequently. When they did, they iterated the potentially toxic mix of guns and heated public debate.

“Guns have no place in our civil discourse,” Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote. “Nobody needs a gun to make their voice heard in our democracy, and nobody should face armed intimidation.”

Restricting open carry is part of a broader agenda of gun bills pushed by Democrats.

Last week, Democrats used their majority in the Senate to pass a bill banning high-capacity firearm magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Senate Bill 5078 will receive a hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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