During the 2018 midterms, Washington State asked voters to consider a ballot initiative outlining one of the most sweeping platforms of gun safety laws in the nation; the initiative passed with 60 percent of the vote. Initiative 1639 took a broad approach to gun control, addressing a wide range of issues from gun storage to safety training. Among other things, the law raises the age and extends the waiting period for the purchase of semi-automatic weapons. The law also extends background checks and establishes an annual review of background checks to ensure that law-abiding gun owners continue to be law-abiding gun owners after purchasing their weapons. Washington joins a handful of other states like Hawaii, which maintains a criminal history watch list for gun owners, and California, which allows law enforcement to confiscate weapons from individuals identified as “at risk” for committing acts of gun violence.
The Washington law also contains a “community endangerment” provision, which resembles “safe storage” laws. Safe storage laws have already been enacted in several states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. The restrictions imposed by these laws vary: for example, California requires gun owners to store their firearms in a locked container and provides that locks must be included in both dealer sales and private sales and must meet state standards, while Ohio requires only that a dealer must offer a purchaser a lock for the weapon at the time of sale. In contrast to the safe storage laws, the Washington ballot initiative does not compel gun owners to lock their weapons away when not in use. Instead, Initiative 1639 creates a new class of crimes for gun owners who fail to secure their weapons. If someone who is prohibited from having a weapon gets their hands on a gun owner’s unsecured firearm and uses it (or even displays it), the gun owner may be guilty of a felony.
With mass shootings continuing to garner media attention and incite concern, other states may ask voters to consider changes to gun laws (Florida is already contemplating a state constitutional amendment to ban military-style firearms, and Iowa is pondering a constitutional amendment that would enshrine a right to own and bear arms). The future of the gun debate may not be in Congress but rather in state legislatures and the voting booth.