OLYMPIA — Well before a troubled 19-year-old opened fire with a military-style rifle in a Florida high school, Paul Kramer and Adam Cornell had been pushing Washington lawmakers to keep such weaponry out of the hands of young adults.
On Tuesday they tried again, reminding members of a legislative panel of the July night in 2016 in Mukilteo when another 19-year-old murdered three people and wounded Kramer’s son with a similar weapon bought at a local store.
Kramer and Cornell urged the Senate Ways and Means Committee to back a bill that would apply the same background check requirements on those purchasing semiautomatic rifles or shotguns with tactical features as are now conducted for someone seeking to buy a handgun.
Senate Bill 6620 also would boost the legal age for buying a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21. That’s the legal age to buy a handgun in Washington.
The bill also would create a program to give students a way to anonymously report any suspicious activity, threats, or causes for concern they encounter. And it would help school districts develop an app students could use to contact authorities in an emergency.
“I am hopeful the political will is growing to pass this bill,” Kramer said. “We are long overdue for us to send a message to our children that they matter more than providing easy access to military-style weapons.”
Gun rights advocates said in Tuesday’s hearing that they endorse the school safety provisions but consider the proposed changes to firearm purchases to be an infringement of individual rights.
No longer allowing law-abiding 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to buy a semiautomatic rifle unfairly restricts them from “exercising their inherent rights to self defense,” Keely Hopkins, state liaison for the National Rifle Association, told lawmakers.
Brett Bass, a firearms instructor at the Bellevue Gun Club, said the vast majority of gun-related crimes in Washington involve handguns, not the weapons targeted in the legislation. It is also rare for someone under the age of 21 to use a semiautomatic rifle in a mass slaying, he asserted, adding these high-profile incidents should not steer their efforts.
Any new regulatory policy, he suggested, should focus on the “majority case not the marginal one.”
This drew strong words from Cornell, a Snohomish County deputy prosecutor, who testified a short time later. Cornell was at the scene of the shooting in Mukilteo and prosecuted the case.
“There was nothing marginal about Anna, Jake and Jordan,” he said, reciting the names of those slain. “And there was nothing marginal about the lives of those who died in Parkland and in all the other mass shootings that have happened in this country and that will continue to happen if we don’t do something about it.
“This is common-sense legislation that can stop the carnage — the carnage that I saw with my own eyes when I responded to the shooting in Mukilteo,” he said. “Honor those dead children by giving life to this bill and sending it to the governor.”
Both the gunman in the Mukilteo shooting and an Everett teen arrested earlier this month for allegedly planning to shoot up ACES and Kamiak high schools legally purchased military-style semiautomatic rifles in Snohomish County, records show.
The Mukilteo shooter went to Cabela’s in Marysville and purchased a Ruger based on the AR-15 design. He was so unschooled about firearms that he had to consult the manual before loading the weapon the night of the shootings, court records show. In a letter apparently intended as a suicide note, he also wrote, “Let’s talk about how easy it is to buy guns. I was shocked.”
Later, texts would surface where he repeatedly told a friend of his plans to turn the weapon on a former girlfriend. The friend unsuccessfully tried to convince him to abandon that idea — and the firearm — but did not alert police.
Police say the grandparents of Joshua Alexander O’Connor likely prevented a school shooting when they called 911 this month. They took that step after reading entries in the teen’s journal about plans to kill classmates and after discovering a military-style rifle in a guitar case in his room.
Search warrants show that his grandparents had purchased O’Connor a membership at West Coast Armory for his 18th birthday in December. The south Everett business features a gun store and shooting range. His grandmother told police she had no idea the teen had bought a weapon.
Police recovered the journal, a 9mm HiPoint carbine and paperwork documenting its purchase. There also were shooting range targets with bullet holes. Some of the targets were “inscribed with the word ‘redrum’ (murder spelled backwards),” detectives wrote in search warrant affidavits.
In his journal, O’Connor reportedly described wanting to buy the carbine in part because it was the same style weapon used by one of the shooters in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The carbine wasn’t in stock at the Everett gun shop and had to be special ordered, search warrants say.
“I can’t wait for the carbine to come,” O’Connor reportedly wrote. “It’s too (expletive) easy to buy a gun.”
O’Connor is jailed on $5 million bail and facing multiple felony charges, including attempted murder. The Mukilteo shooter is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to multiple killings and assault.
With the session set to end next week, the odds are long for passage of the new Senate legislation. An earlier incarnation of the bill that focused on enhancing background checks and boosting the purchase age never made it out of this same committee. And bills attempting to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines and require safe storage of firearms also failed to advance this session.
On the other hand, a bill banning the manufacture and sale of rapid-fire bump stocks did clear the Legislature on Tuesday and is on its way to Gov. Jay Inslee for his expected signing. And the governor is strongly behind tougher rules on purchasing of military-style rifles.
The deaths of 17 people at the high school in Florida are reigniting the momentum, said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, sponsor of SB 6620.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Parkland situation has changed the dynamic of this situation,” he said. “This is on people’s minds. It’s important for us to try to address it.”