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Ban on high-capacity magazines headed to Washington House

By Alec Regimbal, SeattlePI

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia, Washington.

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia, Washington.

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Lawmakers in the state House of Representatives could soon vote on a measure that would ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of firearm magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, effectively outlawing high-capacity magazines in Washington.

The measure — Senate Bill 5078 — was sponsored by state Sen. Marko Liias, a Democrat from Everett who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2020. A version of the bill passed out of the state Senate on Wednesday. The 28-20 vote fell along party lines.

Before the final vote, Liias invoked the 2016 shooting in Mukilteo during a speech on the Senate floor. In that shooting, a gunman killed three people and injured another before running out of ammo.

“On July 30, 2016, I vowed to myself and to my community that I would do everything in my power to ensure that no family has to go through what our community went through,” Liias said. “This measure will make Washington a safer place. This measure will save lives.”

Washington Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, have made several attempts in recent years to implement stiffer regulations on firearm magazines. But Wednesday’s vote marks the first time such a bill has been passed by a chamber.

Liias’ bill — which he sponsored at the behest of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson — applies to all firearm magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds. Typical pistol magazines can hold anywhere between 12 and 20 rounds, and many rifle magazines can carry up to 30.

Corrections officers, police and members of the armed forces are exempt. The same is true for licensed dealers that sell firearms to those institutions. The bill does not criminalize possession of high-capacity magazines, meaning individuals who already own them will not be punished for having them.

If the bill is passed and becomes law, violations will result in a gross misdemeanor. In Washington, penalties for such crimes include serving 364 days in a county jail or a fine of up to $5,000.

In a statement, Ferguson praised state lawmakers.

“The Legislature put public safety above the interest of the gun lobby,” he said. “This historic vote represents an important step toward combating mass shootings.”

But gun control advocates shouldn’t celebrate yet. Democrats still have a fight ahead of them if House leaders decide to bring the measure to the floor for a vote before the Legislature adjourns next month.

In 2020, a similar bill that originated in the state House was tabled after Republicans filed more than 120 amendments to it. Typically, lawmakers are forced to debate each amendment before voting on a bill. Discussing that many amendments would eat up huge chunks of floor time, which Democrats could use to pass other measures.

While Senate Republicans didn't mount a similar effort to kill Liias' bill this year, the House lawmaker who filed a majority of the amendments to the 2020 bill — Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor — is still in office. 

Advocates for the bill argue that its implementation will not only help curb mass shootings, but will also limit the number of deaths that occur if one should happen.   

In his statement, Ferguson cited a 2019 study that appeared in the American Journal of Public Health. In that study, researchers said attacks involving high-capacity magazines resulted in 62% more deaths than attacks without high-capacity magazines on average. They also found that mass shootings were twice as likely to happen in states without restrictions on magazine capacity.

Further, proponents of the bill argue that 10 rounds should be sufficient for personal or home defense.

Opponents, on the other hand, argue such laws are an infringement on the Washington state and U.S. constitutions. They also say people who are already intent on committing a mass shooting won’t be dissuaded by a ban on high-capacity magazines, especially given the number of such magazines already in circulation.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, proposed about a dozen amendments to Liias’ bill, perhaps taking cues from his House counterparts and the success they had in 2020. None of the amendments were adopted.

During floor debate, Fortunato argued the bill would not make citizens of the state safer.

“We are saying, that by passing this law, a person who is intent on mass murder is somehow going to pay attention to the size of his magazine and say, ‘Oh gee, I’m going to be in violation of the law if I have a magazine over 10 rounds,’” he said. “He’s already made the decision that he’s going to go in there and do harm to people.”


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Alec Regimbal is a politics reporter at SFGATE. He graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor's degree in journalism. A Washington State native, Alec previously wrote for the Yakima Herald-Republic and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He also spent two years as a political aide in the Washington State Legislature.