Regulating Firearms in Washington State
The debate over sale and possession of firearms is yet again in the news after the recent devastating mass shootings in jurisdictions around the nation. The purpose of this blog is to review Washington State’s approach to firearm regulation and to identify areas in which local governments can regulate firearm sale, possession, use, and storage.
Washington State mostly preempts the field of firearm regulation under RCW 9.41.290, leaving only a handful of areas in which local governments can adopt local control measures. The Washington State Supreme Court recently explained this sharing of regulatory authority in Bass v. Edmonds:
While the legislature’s intent to occupy the entire field of firearm regulation is clear, not every municipal action that touches on firearms is within that field. See Cherry v. Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 116 Wn.2d 794, 800, 808 P.2d 746 (1991). After reviewing relevant legislative history, this court concluded that “the Legislature…sought to eliminate a multiplicity of local laws relating to firearms and to advance uniformity in criminal firearms regulation” and that “[t]he ‘laws and ordinances’ preempted are laws of application to the general public.”
This blog focuses on those areas where local governments have some regulation authority. For a more comprehensive review of state firearm regulation, visit articles linked at the end of this blog.
Sale and Purchase of Firearms
State law almost fully regulates the sale and purchase of firearms (see, for example, the new prohibition on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines — SB 5078, and a ban on 'ghost guns,' or homemade firearms — HB 1705), although cities, towns, and counties do have limited authority to restrict areas within their jurisdiction where firearms may be sold. I refer to this authority as “limited” because the law requires that the local government treat all businesses the same when adopting such an ordinance, except when restricting the location of firearms businesses within 500 feet of schools per RCW 9.41.300(4)(a). In other words, a local government cannot single out businesses selling firearms unless they are within 500 feet of a school.
If a local government is acting in its proprietary capacity as a property owner, it may impose conditions on the sale of firearms on its property so long as a private property owner can also impose those conditions. This was the holding in Pacific Northwest Shooting Park Association v. Sequim, in which the city required strict firearm sale rules during a gun show that was held at the city-owned convention center.
Open Carry of Firearms
Washington is an open-carry state, which means that an individual can openly carry a firearm in a public place unless specifically prohibited by state law. Private property owners may prohibit open carry of firearms on their property and possession of all firearms (both open carry and concealed carry) is prohibited at the following locations:
- Courtrooms and other areas used in connection with court proceedings.
- Jails and public mental health facilities (restricted access areas).
- Schools and child-care facilities, and on transportation provided by the school or facility.
- Official meetings of a school district board of directors when held on school facilities. The district must post signs providing notice of the prohibition. (Lawful concealed carry is allowed while attending board meetings held off school district-owned or leased property).
- Airports (at screening checkpoints and beyond).
- Outdoor music festivals.
- Election-related facilities. (Lawful concealed carry is allowed at some facilities.)
Open carry is prohibited (but lawful concealed carry is allowed) at the following locations:
- State capitol campus grounds and legislative facilities.
- A permitted demonstration and within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration after law enforcement advises the person of the demonstration and directs them to leave. This prohibition does not apply to firearm possession by individuals who are on their own private property.
- In a stadium or convention center operated by the local government but only upon adoption of a local ordinance and not if the event involves a showing, demonstration, or lecture involving the exhibition of firearms).
New this past legislative session, HB 1630 prohibits the open carry of firearms (and other weapons) in:
…(c)ity, town, county, or other municipality buildings used in connection with meetings of the governing body of the city, town, county, or other municipality, or any location of a public meeting or hearing of the governing body of a city, town, county, or other municipality during the hearing or meeting.
Local governments should note several things about this new provision. First, the term “governing body” is defined the same way it is in the Open Public Meetings Act to include not just the city council or county commission, but also boards, commissions, committees, and other policy or rule-making bodies of the public agency.
Second, the prohibition on open carry of firearms applies to the entire building where a meeting of the governing body is held even when the meeting is not currently in progress. The prohibition also applies to non-municipal buildings where a meeting or hearing of the governing body is held but only when that meeting or hearing is in progress.
Third, the local government must post signs at locations where open carry is prohibited. (Many local governments are just posting a simple sign indicating it is a misdemeanor to open carry at the location and citing to RCW 9.41.305.)
Fourth, in order to prosecute the misdemeanor in municipal court, the local government must adopt the state law by reference into its municipal code.
Concealed Carry of Firearms
Under RCW 9.41.050(1)(a) a person can carry a concealed pistol outside of their own abode or place of business only if they secure a concealed pistol license (CPL). CPL applications are submitted to the local police department or county sheriff’s office which will then issue the license after fingerprinting and a background check, unless RCW 9.41.070 warrants denial.
On a related note, the Washington State Legislature modified the exemption in the Public Records Act for CPL applications. Under SHB 1901 the exemption expands the list of persons and entities who can obtain CPL applications and related information to include certain local government and law enforcement positions, including county prosecutors, city attorneys, and municipal judges.
Use of Firearms
Even in places where open carry is allowed, an individual cannot:
- Carry, exhibit, display, or draw a firearm in a manner that manifests an intent to intimidate another person or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons (RCW 9.41.270). I explore this statute a bit more in Possession and Carrying of Firearms in Washington State: What’s Allowed?
- Aim a firearm towards a human being — see RCW 9.41.230(1)(a).
- Willfully discharge a firearm in a public place or any place where a person might be endangered — see RCW 9.41.230.
In terms of local control, local governments are authorized to adopt an ordinance restricting the discharge of firearms where there is a reasonable likelihood that humans, domestic animals, or property will be jeopardized. This is a common provision in city and county codes — see, for example, Lewis County’s designation of no shooting zones and the City of Issaquah’s prohibition of firearm discharge except for at a shooting range.
Local government ordinances regulating storage of firearms is preempted by state law, as was made clear in the recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court in Bass v. Edmonds. In 2019, voters approved Initiative 1639 (now codified in RCW 9.41.360) making unsafe storage of a firearm unlawful. Notably, state law does not mandate how or where a firearm must be stored.
Around the same time that the Initiative 1639 was enacted by the voters, the City of Edmonds adopted a local ordinance requiring Edmond residents to securely store their firearms by a locking device that made it inaccessible and unusable to any person other than the owner or other lawfully authorized user. The state supreme court held the city’s ordinance is preempted by state law because the state fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation, and the city was acting in its regulatory (not proprietary) capacity in adopting an ordinance regulating storage of firearms.
Changes at the Federal Level
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out several lower court rulings that had upheld gun restrictions in Maryland (a ban on assault-style rifles); New Jersey and California (bans on large-capacity ammunition magazines); and New York and Hawaii (restrictions on openly carrying firearms in public). The June 23 ruling also elevated the right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense as protected by the Constitution. Prior to this, the court had said the Constitution protected the ability to have a gun inside the home for self-defense.
Days later, President Biden signed major federal gun reform legislation that accomplishes the following:
- Denies gun sales to those convicted of abusing unmarried intimate partners and/or anyone convicted of domestic violence,
- Requires background checks for gun buyers aged 18-20 that includes an examination of their juvenile record,
- Strengthens penalties for gun trafficking, and
- Makes funding available to help states enforce “red flag" laws and for violence prevention programs.
How these federal changes will impact fireams regulations is still unclear but MRSC will update our resources once we have a better understanding of the evolving situation.
While this blog gives a good overview of the types of firearm regulations a local government can adopt without facing a state preemption challenge, if you’d like more information on firearm regulation in general, I recommend reviewing the following resources:
- Seattle Times: Hey America: Following WA on gun laws could have prevented those mass shootings (covers the gun storage law and assault rifle purchase restrictions), published June 1, 2022
- Washington State Attorney General: Firearms FAQs
- Washington State Senate Committee Services: Summary of Firearms Laws (published in 2019 so some provisions have changed).
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.