OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced that a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ruled that Initiative 1639 is constitutional and will remain law in Washington state. The voter-approved initiative made several changes to Washington laws on semiautomatic rifle purchases, including strengthening background checks and requiring waiting periods for purchases of semiautomatic assault rifles.
Judge Ronald Leighton, a President George W. Bush-appointed federal judge, granted Ferguson’s motion for summary judgment ruling that I-1639 does not violate the Constitution. The law implemented the same enhanced background checks, waiting periods, and purchasing requirements for semiautomatic assault rifle purchases that have long been in place for handgun purchases.
Judge Leighton decided a trial was unnecessary to resolve the case. In order to rule on summary judgment, there must be no genuine dispute over any material fact, and the judge views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. In other words, the judge viewed the facts in a light most favorable to the NRA and the other plaintiffs in the case, and still upheld the initiative.
“An overwhelming majority of Washington voters approved Initiative 1639,” Ferguson said. “The NRA continues to challenge voter-approved, common sense gun reforms – and they continue to lose. I will not allow the NRA to undermine the will of the voters. If they choose to appeal, we will beat them again.”
The ruling is the result of a 2019 lawsuit several plaintiffs, including the National Rifle Association and the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, filed against Washington over the initiative. As part of his role as Attorney General, Ferguson defends all voter initiatives against legal challenges.
The recent ruling is not the first time Ferguson’s office defeated the gun lobby’s challenge to a gun safety initiative passed by the people. The Second Amendment Foundation and others challenged Initiative 594 after Washingtonians overwhelmingly adopted the initiative to close the background check loophole in 2014. The federal trial court dismissed the gun lobby’s challenge to I-594, and the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.
Gun violence devastates families and communities throughout our nation. Many mass shootings from the last several years — including the tragedies at Newtown, Parkland and Burlington, Washington — were carried out by a gunman who was 18 to 20 years old and using a semiautomatic rifle.
In November 2018, I-1639 passed with nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. The initiative extended many of the same requirements for purchasing a handgun in Washington state to the purchase of a semiautomatic rifle. These requirements include enhanced background checks, a waiting period, and banning purchases to those younger than 21. Consequently, as a result of the initiative, the same rules apply to purchases of handguns and semiautomatic assault rifles.
Answers to frequently asked questions about the law are available on the Attorney General’s Office website.
Enhanced background checks
Enhanced background checks of state records have long been required for pistol sales or transfers, which local law enforcement officials conduct. These enhanced background checks include searches for outstanding warrants in the Washington State Patrol electronic database. They also include mental health checks with the Washington State Health Care Authority, such as records of individuals found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. According to the Health Care Authority, these mental health checks result in approximately 400 denials per year.
Initiative 1639 required the same enhanced background checks for sales or transfers of semiautomatic assault rifles. The chief of police or sheriff must provide written notice to the dealer whether the purchaser is eligible to possess a semiautomatic assault rifle and whether the application to purchase is approved.
In his ruling, Judge Leighton highlighted the importance of this background check requirement, writing, “It is undisputed that enhanced background checks are more comprehensive than an NICS check alone. …This enhanced background check cannot be conducted on nonresidents because Washington State cannot request — much less require — out-of-state law enforcement agencies to assist with running Washington’s background checks.”
In 2017, Ferguson proposed legislation requiring enhanced background checks for assault weapon purchases. That legislation did not pass. Consequently, the people passed an initiative.
Expert declarations highlight public safety enhancements
In defending the initiative, Ferguson filed several declarations in support for the state’s motion for summary judgment.
The declarations include one from Paul Kramer, whose 19-year-old son Will was critically injured in a shooting in Mukilteo. The shooter, 19-year-old Allen Ivanov, legally purchased AR-15 style rifle just a few days before the shooting took place. Using an entire 30-round magazine, the shooter killed three people and injured Will.
In his declaration, Kramer wrote: “Words cannot express what it means for a family to go through these devastating events. Three families lost their loved ones. We were lucky and Will lived. While his physical wounds eventually healed, the grief and trauma never will be gone. I served as the citizen sponsor of Initiative 1639, which would have prohibited Ivanov from legally purchasing the semiautomatic assault rifle he used in his shooting spree, in order to help prevent other families from having to live the same nightmare as ours. …No family should have to go through the same type of tragedy that mine has.”
In another declaration, Dr. Frederick Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington, highlighted the link between semiautomatic assault rifles and mass shootings.
Dr. Rivara wrote: “The available data on semiautomatic assault rifles indicates they have played an important and disproportionate role in mass shootings in the United States and appear to be the weapon of choice when an individual wants to shoot and kill as many people as possible in a short period of time. The available data also indicate that restrictions on purchase or possession of these rifles can result in a reduction of mass shooting deaths, as shown both in the US and in Australia, and thus have important positive impact of health and public health.”
Dr. Rivara’s expert report also touched upon the mental health consequences of mass shootings: “It is clear that mass shootings, many of which are committed with semiautomatic assault rifles, have substantial effects on the mental health of survivors, as well as people in the community.”
Dr. Vin Gupta, professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, provided a declaration outlining the relative harms of semiautomatic weapons relative to pistols, which, prior to I-1639’s passage, were more heavily regulated than semiautomatic assault rifles. Dr. Gupta wrote: “Taken together, my clinical experience and the existing scientific evidence on this issue are clear. Injuries from semiautomatic weapons are far deadlier than injuries from non-semiautomatic weapons.”
Sheriffs and police chiefs
After I-1639, several elected sheriffs and police chiefs publicly questioned the law’s constitutionality and announced they would not enforce the initiative. In response, Ferguson sent an open letter to sheriffs and police chiefs. The letter recognized that law enforcement have discretion how to deploy the resources of their agency, but reminded sheriffs that laws are presumed constitutional and no court has ruled I-1639 unconstitutional. Moreover, Ferguson informed sheriffs and police chiefs that they have a non-discretionary obligation to perform the law’s enhanced background checks on transfers of semiautomatic assault rifles, and that their agency could be held liable if their refusal to perform these background checks leads to injury.
Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Even and Assistant Attorneys General Zach Pekelis Jones, Brendan Selby and July Simpson led the case for Washington. Additionally, Safe Schools Safe Communities, the organization that drafted the initiative, intervened in the case to help defend the initiative. They are represented by Greg Wong, Kai Smith and Nick Brown of Pacifica Law Group.