OLYMPIA — The deadly shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School is unlikely to change the course of next week’s vote on two gun-related initiatives, but it will spawn a renewed effort to enact a firearms-safety law next year.
State Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, whose district includes parts of south Snohomish County, for two years has sponsored a bill that would require that guns be safely stored, making it a crime if a person stores or leaves a loaded firearm in a place where a child under 16 could get it.
It didn’t get out of committee in 2013 and didn’t get a hearing in 2014. She said Wednesday she’ll try again in 2015. The Legislature convenes in January.
She introduced it because of a series of accidental child deaths and adolescent suicides in Washington involving guns. She thinks loss of life could be reduced with a safe-storage law.
“When I reintroduce it next session, I think the issue in Marysville will clearly add a dimension because a 15-year-old boy was able to access a gun and do tremendous harm,” she said. “If that gun had been safely stored in a lockbox, maybe this tragedy would not have happened.”
Investigators have not released details of how the legally purchased and registered .40-caliber Beretta was kept, and how shooter Jaylen Fryberg obtained it.
On Tuesday, voters will consider competing gun measures:
Initiative 594 would expand state law to require criminal background checks on buyers in private gun sales and transfers.
Initiative 591 would bar any such expansion beyond what is allowed under federal law.
People on both sides promise that the Marysville Pilchuck shooting won’t be part of electioneering in the final days of this year’s election.
“We think that would be in bad taste,” said Alan Gottlieb, manager of the Yes on 591 campaign and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,
“It is not something that fits into any political conversation,” said Christian Sinderman, a consultant for the Yes on 594 campaign.
Tragic events can influence voters, but most who are voting in Tuesday’s mail-in election made up their minds before the shooting, and the event will serve to reinforce their position, according to researchers, pollsters and political strategists.
“The fact that this occurred right during the middle of voting means that its impact will be greater than some tragedies, but still I would expect its impact to be small,” said Travis Ridout, the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government and Public Policy at Washington State University.
“It may boost support for 594 among people who are geographically proximate to the shooting and may inspire some increased turnout, but I expect that would be limited,” Ridout said.
“People who support gun rights are going to say that the proposed law wouldn’t have mattered anyway and argue that teachers should have been carrying guns, just as they do after every school shooting,” he said. A statewide poll concluded on the day of the shooting and released Wednesday night by KCTS-TV in Seattle suggested that I-594 was passing with 64 percent in favor and I-591 was failing with only 45 percent support.
Seattle pollster Stuart Elway found similar levels of support for the measures in a survey he conducted in early October.
Like Ridout, Elway said it is plausible that the shooting will incite a few more people to turn in their ballots and thus increase vote totals for both measures. He doesn’t think the outcomes revealed in his survey — I-594 passing and I-591 losing — will change.
“It’s not like this is an issue that people are undecided about,” he said. “I think what it may do is intensify people on both sides.”
Voters can be moved to action by tragic and jarring events, though it’s often in tandem with an action by the Legislature.
The murder of four Lakewood police officers in 2009 prompted state lawmakers to endorse amending the state constitution to allow judges to keep more criminals locked up without bail. It then went before voters, who overwhelmingly approved the revision in November 2010.
Sometimes the timing of a tragedy can alter the tone of a campaign and the fortune of a ballot measure.
In early 2005, lawmakers passed and Gov. Chris Gregoire enacted a 9.5-cent rise in the gas tax to pay for billions of dollars in transportation projects. Opponents set out to repeal it in November.
In August of that year, Hurricane Katrina struck, and the sights of the devastation in New Orleans and the surrounding region reverberated in Washington’s election.
Those running the campaign to preserve the gas tax knew from polling voters had grown very concerned about the state’s infrastructure. The campaign fed that worry with television ads that showed images from the 1989 earthquake that collapsed part of a bridge and highway in the San Francisco Bay Area. Voters agreed to keep the gas tax.
Legislatures, not the ballot box, typically are where gun laws tend to be passed.
Connecticut passed some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation a little more than three months after 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012.
Colorado, New York and Maryland also enacted new gun-control laws after Sandy Hook. And this year, California approved a series of gun-related measures in response to a mass shooting in Isla Vista, which left seven people dead, including the shooter.
Washington lawmakers introduced several gun-related bills in the 2013 session, including measures to ban assault weapons, to promote sale of locking devices on firearms and the creation of a special NRA license plate.
There also was a hotly debated measure to expand background checks to cover private gun sales. Its failure spawned the alliance that led to this year’s initiative.
As for the next legislative session, Kagi is a veteran of lawmaking and knows getting a gun bill through won’t be easy.
“Gun bills are tough,” she said. “That’s not going to change.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.