Erin Volz (left) and Andrea Snoke carry weapons during a 2019 gun-rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Erin Volz (left) and Andrea Snoke carry weapons during a 2019 gun-rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Open-carry of weapons now illegal at state Capitol, rallies

A new law bars people from carrying guns within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill Wednesday that outlaws the “open carry” of guns and other weapons inside the state Capitol and on its grounds, and near public demonstrations for which participants have a permit.

The prohibition, long sought by Democrats and gun control activists, gained political steam after January’s deadly insurrection in Washington, D.C., and, the same day, a protest at the Capitol in Olympia at which some armed participants trespassed on the lawn of the executive mansion.

“This is a common-sense approach that extends our existing prohibition to open carry firearms in limited situations to ensure an individual can’t use a weapon to intimidate other citizens,” Inslee said upon signing Senate Bill 5038.

Because the legislation contains an emergency clause, the law took effect immediately instead of the usual 90 days after the end of a legislative session. That means opponents cannot pursue a referendum to try to overturn the statute.

Until Wednesday, a person could have a rifle slung over their shoulder while visiting some spaces inside the Capitol. Firearms were prohibited only in legislative hearing rooms and the public galleries of the House and Senate. Outside, gun-rights activists carrying or wearing firearms have in the past gathered for rallies on the front steps of the legislative building.

And in Snohomish last year, armed citizens stood outside businesses with guns in full view as civil rights activists marched down the street as part of ongoing protests of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

No more.

The law adds permitted demonstrations and the Capitol grounds to the list of places where firearms were already prohibited. Those included the restricted areas of jails, courtrooms, taverns and commercial airports.

Supporters of the law argued that the presence of openly armed individuals at demonstrations is intimidating and heightens tensions, potentially leading to violence.

Specifically, the measure bars a person 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 law by a law enforcement officer. Violation is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

The new law exempts on-duty military and law enforcement personnel. Also exempt are property owners or renters on their own property, even if it’s inside the 250-foot perimeter of a demonstration.

For organizers who don’t get a demonstration 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.

Backers of the bill expect activists will now be more inclined to get an event permit because of the protections under the new law.

Sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the law makes Washington one of nine states with limits on one’s ability to openly carry firearms in some public places, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“Gun violence in America is ultimately a public health crisis,” Kuderer said in a statement. “This new law is a small but important step toward reducing gun-related injuries and deaths. But lawmakers still have a lot of work to do to keep our communities safe.”

State Senate Bill 5038 passed by final votes of 57-40 in the House and 28-21 in the Senate.

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

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