Ban on firearms at government meetings, advance counting of ballots

OLYMPIA — Washington moved closer Monday to banning guns where school boards and city councils meet and where ballots are counted.

The State House has approved legislation prohibiting “open carry” in buildings where elected city and county leaders hold their meetings, and open and hidden carry where school boards meet and vote counting takes place.

Majority Democrats passed House Bill 1630 on a vote of 57 to 41, saying the restrictions will keep these places safe from intimidation by armed individuals. It now goes to the Senate for review.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to count the ballots with armed people around you. It would be daunting,” said Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek, co-sponsor of the bill. “We should not allow guns where we practice democracy. Period. Complete stop.”

During a roughly three-hour debate, Republicans argued that the legislation was unconstitutional because it infringes on the rights of Second Amendment gun owners.

And they argued that banning the carrying of concealed weapons into school board sessions and voting centers would make those sites less safe, not more.

“This is a terrible, terrible bill. This is a bill looking for a problem, a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, who is authorized to carry a concealed weapon and participated in rallies while openly carrying a firearm.

Courtrooms, prisons, schools and airports have long been banned. A few months ago, a new law added the State Capitol campus to the list. It also banned open carry at or near public gatherings and demonstrations.

This bill aims to build on that momentum.

Meanwhile, legislation in the state senate takes a different approach.

This would allow cities, towns, counties and other municipalities to craft their own open transportation restrictions, beyond the statewide rules. Senate Bill 5568 would change the current law, which prevents local governments from doing so. It’s to the Senate Rules Committee.

Both are in response to what Democrats say has been a dangerous increase in tense confrontations at public meetings fueled by national politics, pandemic policies and the teaching of social theories.

Under HB 1630, it would be illegal to openly carry a weapon in a building if the person knows that is where the local governing body meets. This may be a regular council meeting or a special public hearing.

And it prohibits the carrying of open and concealed firearms where official school district board meetings are held and where ballots are counted. However, concealed transport is not prohibited if a person enters an electoral office to drop off a ballot or retrieve a voter card.

A notice of the restrictions should be posted at any covered location. A violation would be a serious offense punishable by a fine and up to a year in prison.

During Monday’s debate, Republicans offered amendments to allow concealed weapons at school board and election office meetings. Concealed carry, they argued, is for the protection of people, and not allowing it would make the public less safe.

Additionally, they were concerned that people carrying a gun in a purse or ankle holster could unwittingly break the law by entering a building where the school board meets or election workers work.

“It’s easy. I walked into a school with my gun on me, inadvertently,” Sutherland said, recalling one time he went to a campus one of his daughters attended. struck me later that I had simply inadvertently broken the law.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said a woman with a concealed carry license to defend herself would face “a stark choice” between exercising her constitutional right to protect herself and her constitutional right to participate in the democratic process.

Democrats rarely responded. When they did, they repeated the potentially toxic mix of firearms and heated public debate.

“Guns have no place in our civil discourse,” Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement after the vote. “No one needs a gun to make their voice heard in our democracy, and no one should face armed intimidation.”

Restricting open carry is part of a broader agenda of gun bills pushed by Democrats.

Last week, Democrats used their majority in the Senate to pass a bill banning high-capacity firearm magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.

Senate Bill 5078 will receive a hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the House Civil and Judicial Rights Committee.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; [email protected]; Twitter: @dospueblos.