LITTLEROCK, Thurston County — Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow pointed out his bright orange fleece jacket to other lawmakers Thursday as they approached tables with target pistols laid out, bullets at the ready.
“With only 25 votes, every vote counts,” he joked, reminding them that the GOP-led Senate controlled the chamber by only one vote.
Litzow, of Mercer Island, was one of more than a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers who had showed up by late afternoon for a target and trap shooting competition organized for them and their staff. More than 60 legislators had indicated they would attend the event, which ran into the evening.
During a legislative session, like many around the nation, where emotions run high over gun restrictions, this event was an attempt to have fun, show the sportsman side of guns and demystify them for the uninitiated.
The idea is “to show shooting sports as being very family oriented and something passed down generationally,” said Republican state Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn, the event’s main organizer. “We’re going to go out and have a good time and do some target shooting, which is something that is a pastime for millions of Americans.”
Such shooting competitions for state lawmakers used to be regular events from the late 1980s to 2000, Roach said, but then died out. She’s trying to bring them back.
Various sportsmen’s groups and the National Rifle Association provided supplies, including ammunition, for Thursday’s Legislative Shootout, Roach said.
The recreational aspect of firearms gets lost in the gun-control debate, said Roach, who brought her own guns to the Evergreen Sportsmen’s Club.
Gun control was front and center this session when advocates of universal background checks tried to get a bill through the Democrat -controlled House. The legislation, which would have required background checks for all gun sales, fell short of the votes needed for passage last month. There’s no new movement on the issue in the Senate.
Over the years, the Legislature has proved a friendly place for gun rights. A majority of Washington state lawmakers get high marks from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s dominant pro-gun lobby, according to Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group. Also, the state Capitol building is one of a few in the nation to allow firearms to be openly carried.
Litzow, who supports universal background checks, said there’s no conflict between backing such legislation and showing up for a shooting competition.
“This is a safe, legal way to shoot guns. Citizens have a right to bear arms and to carry guns. We (background-check supporters) just want to make sure we have enough parameters on it that the guns don’t get in the wrong hands,” he said. Litzow added it had been 25 years since he’d shot a gun, but that didn’t seem to affect his performance.
He fired several rounds from a .22 caliber pistol, while a spotter with binoculars standing beside Litzow yelled “bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye” as the cartridges ejected.
Litzow scored 40 out of 50 possible points. He noted that Democratic Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, scored only 31 points. But Upthegrove, who did well at trap shooting, observed: “I’d be surprised if he beat me.”
Other lawmakers in attendance included Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen.
Owen, watching legislators blast clay targets in the trap competition, said, “I think it’s important during the legislative session to have a little break in the strain. These folks are busy all day long; they’re in meetings all day and have people calling them. Sometimes it’s nice just to get out and let off a little steam.”
Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of the background-check bill that died in the House, said he doesn’t see a problem with the shooting competition. He did not attend and noted he’s never fired a gun.
“On a range of different issues there are attempts to bridge gaps in culture and understanding by taking people out on an agricultural tour, or whatever,” he said.
“I think there’s a piece of this that is honestly healthy. We are having serious policy discussions about guns and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to have some experience of holding them and knowing what it feels like to shoot one who don’t have that experience.”