Lawmakers weigh in on gun legislation

Local legislators say the best way to prevent the sort of mass shootings that have put gun ownership under a microscope is to focus more attention on the mental health system.

Since a series of public shootings have made headlines in recent months, including the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., there’s been talk of everything from a potential statewide ban of assault weapons to empowering teachers or principals to carry a concealed weapon in order to protect their students.

The Daily World checked in with the six legislators representing 19th and 24th Legislative District who make up the “Coastal Caucus” to see what their stances on potential gun legislation could be this session. For the most part, they say the focus should be on increasing funding to mental health programs or, at a minimum, sustaining the programs already in development to ensure they aren’t cut. But a few may be willing to look at a variety of legislative ideas.

Four of the legislators are members of the National Rifle Association — state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, along with state Reps. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen; Dean Takko, D-Longview; and Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. During the recent election, the NRA gave each of them, along with non-member state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, an A+ rating, meaning they have an established record “to promote and defend the Second Amendment.” The NRA awarded a “B” grade to state Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, calling him a “generally pro-gun candidate.”

“We’ve got to address the problem that people kill other people,” Blake said. “That’s where the problem lies. If we focus on the guns, that’s not solving the problem.”

“If we come up with new gun laws, all we’re doing is punishing law abiding citizens,” Hatfield said. “We need to be able to identify the true folks who are mentally ill. With these mass school shootings, the profile is always the same and it’s not the guns that are doing it. It’s the fact that we have folks that are somehow falling through the cracks of society and I feel like they’re disconnected.”

“I support the Second Amendment and I can’t get my mind around taking away guns from law-abiding citizens,” Hargrove said. “The crime rate is down statewide by 24 percent and nationally by 14 percent — and that’s not by accident. That’s by using the laws we have to put people in jail and to help those who have mental health issues. … If we’re really looking at gun control laws, is it really a practical approach to improve public safety, especially in this state when we know what we’re doing is working?”

Takko probably owns the most guns of any in the group. An avid hunter, he says he probably has a few dozen that are part of his personal collection and have been gifted to him over the years. The others have all owned or shot guns in the past. All six legislators are hunters or have hunted in the past. Blake got the earliest start, graduating from a hunter safety course at the age of 8.

None of them have weapons that may be considered assault weapons, like the Bushmaster AR-15 that carried 30 clips and was used in recent shootings, including Sandy Hook. Several state legislators are considering introducing legislation that would ban that kind of weapon or reducing the clip size down to a maximum of 10 bullets.

Hargrove, Hatfield, Blake and Takko say they have no intention of supporting any kind of ban on either weapons or larger clips.

“That goes back to the recreational use of guns,” Hatfield said. “Why should we punish the folks who enjoy shooting these guns in a range with a 30-round clip or 100-round drum, who mean nobody any ill will?”

“If I have five 10-round clips they’re so quick to insert that it doesn’t solve the problem,” Blake said.

Van De Wege says he has issues with banning weapons that look too militaristic, but he may be open to reducing the clip size.

“If you go after that type of gun, then people will just change the name and the kind,” Van De Wege said. “So that doesn’t make sense. I am, however, hesitantly open to regulating the size of the clip, but very hesitantly. I’d have a lot of questions. Are the ones in existence grandfathered in? What are the penalties? What would happen if someone came in out of state? Most people caught up in this would be law abiding citizens.”

Tharinger says he’s open to banning potential assault weapons and larger clips.

“There is a sport factor but they are really designed to kill people and it raises a lot of questions,” Tharinger said. “I support the Second Amendment for sure and I think obviously we don’t want to be impaired on our ability to own guns for hunting or traditional uses. But, it seems to me if someone’s a good hunter they don’t need more than five shots at a time.”

“We’ve had semi-automatic firearms for over 100 years,” Blake countered. “It’s just not a solution. I could, right now, modify a lever action Winchester to make the Winchester a fully automatic firearm, with more firepower to it than the semi-automatics that could be banned.”

Tharinger is the most open of the six to other limitations. He says he’s interested in looking into whether handgun sales should be limited to one per month. The other five legislators don’t like the idea. Blake said the suggestion “may even be unconstitutional.”

“I see some value in handguns for self defense but I also think there is some concern through unlimited proliferation of guns,” Tharinger said.

And Tharinger said he may support a push from the city of Seattle to allow cities to regulate guns more strictly, although he has a lot of constitutional questions on the issue. As it is now, state law trumps anything a city may do. A few years ago, the city of Seattle tried to ban guns in parks and city-owned places. But the law was taken to court and overturned.

State Rep. Van De Wege noted that the city of Montesano also tried to ban guns in city parks, although the Montesano City Council later reversed its decision, instead of fighting it in court like Seattle did.

“That’s where my interest came from because Montesano was in my district,” he said. “The problem with regulating guns at municipality levels is that law abiding citizens are criminals in one city and not in others.”

Blake, Takko, Hargrove and Hatfield all said the same thing.

“You don’t want to be doing something legal in Renton and cross the line in Seattle and suddenly, you’re breaking the law,” Takko said.

After accidental shootings involving children in Bremerton, Marysville and Tacoma, legislation will likely be introduced to ensure adults are held more criminally liable for their children’s actions.

Tharinger says he’s had constituents talk to him about the issue already and it’s an issue he says he could support.

“I would also like to research holding a family criminally negligent if there’s someone in the family with severe mental illness who gets a hold of their guns, although I understand it would be very difficult to make that determination,” he said.

Takko and Blake both said they could support the law if it doesn’t just focus on guns, but other things.

“What if a kid gets your pain medication and gives it to a neighbor kid, who dies?” Blake said. “The focus on the gun is wrong here.”

Hatfield and Hargrove said the potential legislation doesn’t make sense to them.

All six legislators say they could likely support legislation to increase penalties for those under 18 who are caught illegally with guns, although a few have questions about it. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has teamed with pro- and anti-gun groups on potential state legislation requiring more detention time if a youth is caught illegally with a gun.

How about putting guns in the hands of protectors at local schools? The National Rifle Association has called for a national effort to put armed security guards or police officers in local schools. In Olympia, Republican legislators are exploring the idea of letting teachers and principals carry concealed weapons, so long as they receive proper training and psychological evaluations.

“I’m an NRA member and I think that proposal is ludicrous and that by far will cost the most money,” Van De Wege said. “There were two armed security officers at Columbine that unfortunately had no effect whatsoever. I was very disappointed the NRA did not come up with a better solution. … As far as arming teachers, I’m not even sure that’s something the state could do. No guns in school is a federal law.”

Tharinger and Takko said they also weren’t sold on the ideas.

“Is the school really the best place to have people packing guns around?” Takko said. “If you leave it in the desk or drawer and walk off, what then?”

Hatfield said he has an issue with the expense involved, “but it’s pretty tough to argue that we want the good guys to have guns.”

Hargrove noted that “gun free zones are only in effect for law abiding citizens.” However, he agreed that the cost factor doesn’t make sense to him.

“You can’t just pass a law and it happens,” Hargrove said. “Whatever you do costs money — whether it’s banning assault weapons or putting armed officers in schools. That all costs money. And we have so many other things we need to spend money on, is this really a conversation we should have right now?”

Blake said he could see the potential of allowing school districts to decide if their employees should have guns.

“If the school board is approached by their employees, their principals and their teachers and some want to volunteer to go through extensive training, I would consider giving them that authority,” Blake said.

Blake and Takko say they both plan to introduce legislation involving guns. Takko says he’ll introduce a bill protecting shooting ranges from nuisance complaints. He tried to push the legislation last year and although it passed the House, it died in the Senate. Blake will push legislation allowing short-barrelled rifles to be owned by gun collectors.

“If you get an extensive FBI background check, get a letter of support from your police chief or sheriff, then you get a stamp to own that weapon,” Blake said. “A Winchester with 14-inch barrels are highly collectible.”

Blake said he also had been working on legislation allowing gun owners to keep their guns in their personal vehicles at work, but it didn’t get much support last year and he has no plans to introduce it again this year.

Last year, Blake was successful in getting legislation passed that allows the use of gun suppressors. The item isn’t a silencer, but it does decrease the volume of the sound when a gun is fired.

“Before the law passed, you could own one legally but couldn’t use it,” Blake said.