Two men stand armed with guns in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia, during a Jan. 6, 2021, protest supporting President Donald Trump and against the counting of electoral votes in Washington, D.C., affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Two men stand armed with guns in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia, during a Jan. 6, 2021, protest supporting President Donald Trump and against the counting of electoral votes in Washington, D.C., affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Protect ballots, meetings from armed intimidation

Two proposed state laws would bar firearms possession at election offices and public meetings.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Here’s what’s necessary to cast your vote at a ballot drop box: yourself and a marked ballot.

Here’s what’s necessary to provide testimony or public comment at a city council, school board or similar meeting of a local government: yourself and a point.

What isn’t necessary in any of those circumstances is a firearm. And what is now necessary to legislate against is the intimidation — whether intentional or not — that is packed along with firearms in those settings.

State lawmakers now are considering two bills that would extend existing prohibitions against the carrying of firearms in specific public settings.

House Bill 1618 would restrict the carrying and possession of firearms at county and state election offices and related facilities, such as ballot processing centers and voter registration facilities. Violation would be punishable as a gross misdemeanor with a penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.

House Bill 1630 would restrict the possession of firearms and other weapons in local government offices used in connection of public meetings and at school boards. Again, violation would be a gross misdemeanor. Further, those violating the law at a school board meeting also would have their concealed permit license revoked for three years.

Washington law currently allows the open-carry of firearms in public areas without a permit and the concealed-carry of firearms with a license. But firearms are prohibited in specific public settings, including schools, courthouses, jails, airports, mental health facilities and retail stores where alcohol and cannabis are sold. Last year, state lawmakers further extended those restrictions to the campus of the state Capitol in Olympia and the open carry of firearms within 250 feet of a permitted public demonstration of 15 or more people.

HB 1618, sponsored by state Rep. April Berg, D-Everett, who also serves as a member of the Everett School Board, came out of a conversation with Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell, following incidents of violence and intimidation at election offices throughout the U.S. after the 2020 election, at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and at school board meetings here and across the country. Firearms also were present at a Jan. 6, 2021, demonstration where supporters of President Trump breached the security fence around the governor’s residence.

“Elections and political perspectives can stir equally intense emotions,” Fell told The Herald in late December. “This proposed bill is a reasonable step to help ensure official election facilities are safe spaces for voters and election workers.”

To promote transparency of the election and ballot-handling processes, members of the public are able to watch the count and the review of ballots and signatures at county election facilities.

While Fell said he has yet to see a firearm in view during Snohomish County’s ballot-counting process, what he and others have seen are situations where intimidation would be inescapable in the presence of firearms.

Berg, who’s husband witnessed the recount of ballots in her own election where harsh language flew, said election workers — employees and volunteers, alike — are out in the open.

“They are sitting there, carrying out an important chore of our democracy and if someone was there with a long gun, it would be intimidating,” Berg told The Herald. “To me there was a sense of urgency of keeping our election workers safe.”

The same holds true, of course, for officials and members of the public at city council, school board and other local government meetings. All deserve to attend those proceedings without fear of intimidation.

As the editorial board wrote last year when restrictions were proposed for the Capitol campus and public demonstrations, the vast majority of gun owners are not a threat to others and, indeed, are law-abiding and careful. But the intent of someone holding a firearm can be difficult to discern, especially when carrying a weapon that resembles those designed for military use and which have been tragically abused in too many mass shootings.

That intent is further clouded in situations were emotions and voices can rise, as is common in situations involving elections and at meetings involving political disagreements.

One opponent of the two bills during a remote hearing before the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee last week, told the panel the bills would not make the public or elected officials safer, the Northwest News Network reported.

“I will not feel secure and safe in any situation that we do not have the right to carry a gun,” said Todd Gowin, a Kitsap County business owner. “We cannot take away a constitutional Second Amendment right to serve the few who feel intimidated by [that] constitutional right.”

Gowin and other opponents of the bill, however, seem willing to accept the intimidation felt by others to ensure their own sense of security. But that’s a trade that fails to recognize the relative threats faced by those holding firearms and those who aren’t.

And it fails to recognize that neither bill seeks to do away with the Second Amendment, only to set reasonable restrictions similar to those that courts have already found constitutional.

Voting and the transparency of our election system are vital to our democracy, as is our participation in the deliberation and decisions of public officials. Intimidation, in any form, has no place where our votes are counted and our opinions are heard.

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