A ban on all firearms, even those carried concealed by properly licensed citizens, in the Washington State Senate viewer galleries is being challenged by a Republican State senator who said in a letter to Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib that “the policy is illegal.”
State Sen. Phil Fortunato (31st District) hand-delivered the letter to Habib’s office late Tuesday. It was Habib, a Democrat, who announced Monday that he had issued an order to the Senate sergeant at arms that all firearms will be banned from the public galleries. There have been no reported incidents of problems involving legally-armed private citizens in the Senate galleries. About three years ago, about two-dozen people who had been attending a gun rights rally on the Capitol steps broke away from the main group and entered the House chamber gallery carrying rifles. At the time, the House chamber was vacant, but photos for which the demonstrators posed have made the rounds on social media and have also appeared in various reports about the incident. Afterward, lawmakers prohibited the open carrying of firearms in the House and Senate galleries, but that prohibition did not affect legal concealed carry.
Habib, in remarks to the press, justified his decision by asserting, “It’s become quite difficult for the Senate to proceed in an orderly fashion when members and staff have, in my view, a justified level of anxiety about their personal safety.” He reportedly cited a March 2017 attack at the British Parliament, and the shooting at a Virginia baseball field where members of Congress were practicing for the annual Democrat-Republican baseball game.
But it should be noted that the gunman in the Virginia attack was a far-left Bernie Sanders supporter, not someone who was legally licensed to carry in Washington State. There are more than 590,000 active concealed pistol licenses (CPL) in the state. The capitol campus is open to carrying concealed or visible firearms.
Critics suggest that Habib’s order would not have been possible until now because the Senate has been under dual control by Republicans with a couple of Democrats. Now that Democrats have taken the majority, Habib made his move.
The Walla Walla Union Bulletin quoted a statement from Democrat Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson that asserted, “People come to the Legislature every day just like they go to movie theaters, churches, concerts, malls, night clubs, offices and schools every day. There should be a reasonable expectation they can go about their lives without fear of violence.”
But people going to all of those venues have undoubtedly been in the presence of legally-armed citizens who were carrying concealed sidearms, and they never knew it, considering the number of active CPLs in the state.
In his letter, Fortunato pointed to state statute that puts sole gun control authority in the hands of the Legislature. He asserted that Senate rules do not give Habib, who acts as Senate president, the authority to arbitrarily issue such an order.
“The policy was decided unilaterally without input from stakeholders or members,” Fortunato wrote.