County passes gun safety measures

In a 6-3 decision last week, the King County Council voted to pass an ordinance requiring gun owners to secure their firearms in safes or lockboxes, one measure of a legislative package tackling gun safety and violence in the county.

In addition to the Safe Storage Law, the council unanimously supported an ordinance requiring that all firearms forfeited to the King County Sheriff’s Office be destroyed, that a youth-led council be implemented to identify methods to help reduce gun violence, and that a task force be created to advance other public health strategies promoting gun safety.

The Secure Storage Law was passed on Oct. 1, which council chair and bill co-sponsor Joe McDermott noted was the one year anniversary of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 concertgoers attending a country music festival were killed. For councilmembers, one of the chief differences of opinion regarding the new law concerned whether securing a gun inadvertently might put those who need it — such as for home defense — in harm’s way, should the ordinance impede those who need access to a weapon as quickly as possible. But McDermott argued that the loss of life to suicide nationally, and in Washington state, took precedence.

September was National Suicide Prevention Month, which he said underscored the critical need for direct intervention to curb the loss of life.

“Firearms and suicide have a significant link,” he said at the meeting. “Responsible storage helps keep the gun out of the hands of someone who shouldn’t have it: a child, someone in a moment of crisis or domestic violence, and this harm is not theoretical. It truly costs lives.”

Gun owners out of compliance with the law would receive a written warning from authorities before a citation is issued, resulting in a civil penalty, according to David Shurtleff, director of communications for the King County Council.

The effective start date of the law has not been set. On the phone last Friday, McDermott said those details were still being worked out. Continued violation of the ordinance would have originally resulted in a misdemeanor charge, but McDermott said that consequence had been scaled back after greater consideration.

McDermott said the support of a majority of the councilmembers for the Secure Storage Law was a testament to the scale and severity of ongoing gun violence, now mutually recognized by elected officials and the general public. He added that he is looking forward to recommendations put forward by the youth council and other groups for further steps that can be taken.

“We have a public health crisis on our hands,” he said. “We have to take action. I can’t wait until it’s convenient for the state and federal government to take action. As a local government official, I have to take the action that I believe I can now to protect lives.”

The three council members who opposed the Secure Storage Law gave reasons for their dissent, including the right to home defense and the threat of possible lawsuits on the grounds of violating existing state law, which prevents local jurisdictions from widely regulating firearms.

Separately, the King County Board of Health will decide later this month whether or not to pursue an action mandating that gun vendors post signage in their shops about the potential dangers of owning a gun.

“These are common sense means to address gun violence in our community. These are measures that responsible gun owners should want to take,” said McDermott, adding that he would not characterize the state Initiative 1639 — scrubbed from the upcoming ballot by a lower court ruling that was later overturned by the Washington Supreme Court — as controversial. The initiative is staunchly opposed by the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment Foundation among others, and a campaign to defeat it is underway. Among other changes, that law would also require the safe storage of guns statewide, raise the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic weapons to 21 and expand background checks. Voters will decide on the initiative on Nov. 6.

At the Oct. 1 council meeting, islander Margy Heldring, founder of the organization Grandmothers Against Gun Violence (GAGV) gave remarks during public comment.

“There are complexities and strong feelings around guns and gun violence in this country, there is no doubt about it,” she said, citing research by the University of Washington School of Public Health, which analyzed data collected by a national telephone survey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Funded by GAGV, the study found that of the respondents surveyed who own firearms, only 37 percent said they were stored locked and unloaded.

“That is an invitation for trouble,” said Heldring, commending the council for taking up a difficult facet of public safety.

According to a press release following the study’s publication in the American Journal of Public Health, such barriers to firearm access can help reduce the risk of suicide, along with support from clinicians, awareness campaigns and further research.

In an email, Heldring said that the main issue — central to both supporters and opponents of the Safe Storage Law and similar ordinances — is preemption.

“These actions reflect growing awareness and efforts to prevent gun violence and promote gun safety, and are hugely welcomed,” she said.

Jan Stephens, president of the Vashon Sportsmen’s Club, declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the club.

Islander Brad Shride, owner of Gid-R-Dun Rod and Gun and the only licensed gun dealer on Vashon, said that an unsecured firearm should always be in the control of the individual properly wielding or carrying it. But he disagrees with the council’s assertion that every idle weapon poses an immediate danger to people in a household unless it is stored safely, calling himself a proponent of the right to defend himself or others if necessary.

“I’m all about safety. I tell people all the time to lock up their guns,” he said. “But it doesn’t do you any good to have your guns locked up if you’re trying to remedy a situation and you have your guns all locked up. But it [also] doesn’t mean you have to have 30 of them laying all over your house, either.”

Shride added that as a licensed dealer, he provides gun locks with every purchase of a firearm, as required under 2005 federal law.

“I believe people should lock up firearms if they’re not being used,” he said.

Islander Kevin Jones, a political activist on Vashon who belongs to the gun safety coalition that debuted at this year’s Strawberry Festival, said that all government has an obligation to ensure the wellbeing of the general public. For this reason, he said he supports the county’s Secure Storage Law and similar measures. Jones emphasized that the coalition, which distributed gun locks and educational materials from Children’s Hospital Seattle to gun owners at the festival, is not devoted to gun control, but rather to increasing safety. The distinction, he said, permits those across the political spectrum to work together in the interest of better outcomes.

“We aren’t going to see eye to eye on every issue, but we should seek to find commonality and have faith that we can trust each other through dialogue while working together,” he said. “And not everybody will feel comfortable to do that, but it takes time, and that’s a reality. But I think that it is important to seek [ways to] move forward.”

Jones added that the coalition is planning to meet sometime this month to discuss next steps. Those interested in participating may contact leader Spring Hecht by email at Spring.hecht@gmail.com.

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