Possession and Carrying of Firearms in Washington State: What’s Allowed?
Author's Update: In the 2021 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature adopted ESSB 5038, which added new restrictions to open carry. First, it is now it unlawful to knowingly open carry a firearm while on the west state capitol campus grounds, any buildings on the state capitol grounds, any state legislative office, or any location of a public legislative hearing or meeting during the hearing or meeting. RCW 9.41.305. Second, it is now unlawful to knowingly open carry a firearm while knowingly at a permitted demonstration or while knowingly on public property within 250 feet of the perimeter of a permitted demonstration after law enforcement advises the person of the demonstration and directs them to leave. RCW 9.41.300(2).
Cities in Washington State have experienced a large number of protests during the past several weeks. While these protests have been mostly peaceful, many cities (such as Kirkland, Snohomish) have seen counter-protestors carrying firearms within downtown corridors or outside businesses. For many, seeing individuals openly carrying firearms in city streets is an uncommon sight and this has local governments wondering what the law is regarding firearms in public places. The purpose of this blog post is to provide a general overview of firearm regulation in Washington State.
Washington is an open-carry state, which means that an individual can openly carry a firearm in many public areas, although private property owners may prohibit firearm possession on their property. This right to openly carry firearms doesn’t mean that anything goes, however. The state, and to a lesser degree, cities and counties, do place some prohibitions on the display, carrying, and use of firearms.
Regulating the Unlawful Display of Firearms
First, RCW 9.41.270 prohibits an individual from carrying, exhibiting, displaying, or drawing a firearm in a manner that manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons. The standard applied is a reasonable person standard, as described in State v. Spencer, 75 Wn. App. 118 (1994). Under this standard, a protestor with a gun properly secured in an exposed holster is unlikely to constitute a violation under RCW 9.41.270, but more unnerving behavior that warrants alarm for a person’s safety can be a crime. For example, in State v. Spencer, an individual walking briskly on a residential street at 10:00 PM, carrying a loaded AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder warranted alarm in violation of RCW 9.41.270.
There are exceptions to the unlawful display of firearms prohibition found in RCW 9.41.270. These include:
- Acts committed by a person while in their abode or place of business.
- A person acting in self-defense against the use of presently threatened unlawful force by another, or for the purpose of protecting another against the use of such unlawful force by a third person.
Regulating Aiming and Discharging a Firearm
Second, a person cannot aim a firearm towards a human being per RCW 9.41.230(1)(a). And, state law prohibits a person from willfully discharging a firearm in a public place or any place where a person might be endangered. (Although beyond the scope of this blog post, self-defense can provide a defense to this prohibition and other similar prohibitions involving firearm discharge. See RCW 9A.16.020 and RCW 9A.16.110.)
Further, although the state preempts the field of firearm regulation under RCW 9.41.290, local governments do have limited authority to enact laws involving discharge of firearms within their jurisdiction where there is a reasonable likelihood that humans, domestic animals, or property will be jeopardized. RCW 9.41.300(2)(a). For example, the City of Bellingham’s Municipal Code 10.30.010 prohibits the discharge of firearms within the city, except at indoor rifle ranges.
Regulating Use of a Firearm to Impersonate Law Enforcement
Third, a person cannot claim to be a law enforcement officer or create an impression they are a law enforcement officer. See RCW 9A.60.045, which was previously RCW 9A.60.040(3). There is limited case law on the statute and none that I found that involved impersonating a law enforcement officer while carrying a firearm.
An example of how this statute has been applied is in Alford v. Haner, where the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a police officer had probable cause to arrest a driver for impersonating a law enforcement officer. (Using wig-wag headlights, the driver had pulled over to aid a motorist with a disabled vehicle and then told the motorist that he was a police officer. He also had a police-style radio, a portable radio scanner, and handcuffs in his car.)
Regulating Firearm Possession
Fourth, individuals are prohibited from possessing guns, whether concealed or not, in specified places, including courtrooms, jails, schools, bars, parts of airports, outdoor music festivals and, new this past legislative session, child care facilities (as detailed in our recent blog post 2020 Legislative Update on Firearms Legislation). See RCW 9.41.280; RCW 9.41.300; and RCW 70.108.150.
Requiring Licenses for Concealed Handguns
Finally, an individual cannot carry a loaded, concealed handgun without a license (except in their own abode or place of business), per RCW 9.41.050(1)(a). On a related note, it is legal in Washington to conceal carry a handgun and wear a mask. Therefore, the statewide mandate to wear masks does not affect the ability to conceal carry. See this Peninsula Daily News article on the topic.
The 2019 MRSC blog post Firearm Regulation at a Local Level explores other types of regulations available to Washington local governments, including prohibiting possession in stadium or convention center operated by a municipality and prohibiting the sale of firearms within 500 feet of a school.
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