Armed citizens who declined to identify themselves stand vigil in Snohomish on June 1, 2020. The man said they were there to “keep business owners and businesses safe.” (Ian Davis-Leonard / Herald file)

Armed citizens who declined to identify themselves stand vigil in Snohomish on June 1, 2020. The man said they were there to “keep business owners and businesses safe.” (Ian Davis-Leonard / Herald file)

Both sides cite armed crowd in Snohomish in gun-bill debate

Two Snohomish County lawmakers invoked the May incident in arguing for and against a gun ban at protests.

OLYMPIA — It’s been 10 months since armed citizens in downtown Snohomish triggered a fissure still present in the community.

Back on May 31, a social media hoax brought dozens of gun-carrying men and women into town to protect shop owners from a destructive “antifa” protest that never occurred. As the patrol became an alcohol-fueled party, their presence evoked anger, fear and frustration among residents.

A week ago, in the midst of an impassioned debate on a state bill that would ban openly carrying guns at demonstrations, two Snohomish County lawmakers offered starkly different views of what transpired as they made their cases.

Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, argued for the ban, saying armed civilians can stifle the political speech and activism of others.

“Intimidation, harassment and fear is not a victimless crime,” she said. “We cannot allow armed vigilantes to come into our beautiful downtowns, our beautiful streets, in the name of protecting something of which they do not value.”

Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, who opposed the bill, came next.

“I was there. Vigilantes? Honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens of Snohomish County who were following the law, who were in our opinion coming to the aid of law enforcement,” he said. “They were begging us for help.”

Under the legislation, those same people could be told to put away their guns or face arrest, he said. It prevents peaceful assemblies of those wishing to exercise their constitutional rights under the Second Amendment.

“This is a terrible law,” he said.

Armed citizens standing along First Street in Snohomish said they were there to protect businesses from possible looters on June 1, 2020. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Armed citizens standing along First Street in Snohomish said they were there to protect businesses from possible looters on June 1, 2020. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Majority Democrats passed Senate Bill 5038 on a party-line vote March 28. It is back in the Senate where Democrats are expected to concur with changes made by the House, including the addition of an emergency clause to make it effective upon signing by the governor.

The measure outlaws the open carrying of guns and other weapons at the state Capitol. It also prohibits people from carrying weapons on their person or in their vehicle while attending a permitted demonstration at a public place. And it bars open-carry within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration — defined as a gathering of 15 or more people at a single event — once they’ve been notified of the rule by a law enforcement officer. Violation of the law would be a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

It isn’t clear if such a law might have made a difference that night in Snohomish. With no permitted demonstrations, law enforcement likely could not have required people to put away their guns.

Berg and Sutherland think it would have.

April Berg

April Berg

People might have thought twice about coming to town with weapons had it been on the books, Berg said. And had an organized demonstration taken place, the police chief could not have issued a call for armed residents to show up, she said.

Sutherland said in an email his comments were not solely about May 31 but covered the several days of rallies and marches around that time.

“Thus, if the bill in question had already become law prior to those events there would be an expectation that individuals who were open carrying might find themselves in legal jeopardy,” he wrote. “Exactly what that might be is uncertain, depending on the response of the local law enforcement agency.”

Looking forward, community leaders expect more activists will be compelled to get an event permit because of the protections under the new law. Even for organizers who don’t get a permit, the legislation empowers law enforcement to “declare” a public gathering to be an event, making it illegal for people around that gathering to openly carry guns.

Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” said Tabitha Baty, president of Snohomish for Equity. “I do believe — given the tension that has risen from the events of last year and given it is still present — it would behoove us to get permits.”

Snohomish for Equity held a rally May 30 in Snohomish for which it didn’t get a permit, but the group did tell police officials ahead of time of their plans.

The next day, armed citizens came downtown. In the ensuing days, students marched nightly in downtown, often passing armed individuals standing guard in shop doorways. Under the proposed law, police would be expected to make those individuals put away their guns or leave.

“This is a critical bill. It acknowledges realities we live in today,” said Sen Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the bill’s prime sponsor.

“It will give local government the tools to step in if they think it is warranted,” she said. “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.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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