In the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., it’s clear many students and parents around the country desire meaningful legislative change. But states vary widely in how they regulate guns and gun owners. So, how does Washington state stack up against other states on gun policy?
Experts say the Evergreen State is stronger on gun control than many but still lags behind the leading states.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence closely tracks state legislation aimed at curbing gun violence. Washington state earned a “B” on the law center’s 2017 scorecard.
Renee Hopkins, chief executive officer of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a nonprofit that works on gun reform in Washington state, says the state has made significant progress in recent years and continues to improve.
“Washington state is mid-range,” she says, “but it’s getting better and better all the time.”
Washington ranked 10th nationally for lowest gun deaths per capita in 2016. That relatively low ranking represents 686 gun deaths, 515 of which were attributed to suicide and the remaining 146 to homicide, "USA Today" reported last month. And those numbers make up a small fraction of the total 38,658 gun deaths that occurred in the U.S. in 2016.
Data maintained by researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health show Washington leads its nearest neighbors in the number of gun laws in its state code. Washington had a total of 43 state gun laws in 2017, while Oregon had 35 and Idaho had only four.
Boosting Washington’s score on gun control, Hopkins says, the state requires universal background checks and bans guns for domestic abusers.
It also has an “extreme risk protection order” law, which allows police or family members to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from someone at risk for self-harm or harming others.
And just last year, Washington became the first state to pass a law aimed at victim safety that requires police to notify victims when someone who’s prohibited from buying guns tries to purchase a firearm.
Although Washington has more regulations in place than many states, it still lags behind states with some of the strongest gun laws and least gun violence, such as Massachusetts, New York, California and Hawaii.
Among areas where it comes up short, Washington does not require gun owners to be licensed, nor does it require them to register their firearms, according to the Giffords Law Center. It also does not restrict the number of guns someone can buy at one time or “significantly regulate ammunition sales.”
The vast majority of states, including Washington, does not ban or regulate assault weapons, the law center says. Bans are in place only in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C.
The next top legislative goals for Hopkins’ group, she says, include raising the minimum age for buying assault weapons in Washington from 18 to 21, and creating a requirement for gun owners to store firearms safely. Her group also works to see that new laws are effectively implemented and enforced.
But while residents wait for more regulations that prevent harm, she says, their own actions can also make an important difference.
“Responsibility includes things like making sure your firearms are safely stored,” Hopkins says, “and actions like that can reduce gun violence in our communities, on our children and on others.”